Wednesday, December 28, 2011

To Blog Or Not To Blog

To blog or not to blog? Right now, that is the question.

Whether ‘tis nobler as an author to suffer the slings and arrows from that nagging little demon-voice saying: days and weeks and months are going by, you and your book are invisible, you can’t expect a following if you don’t post (not that there are any comments when you do anyway, ha!), and what’s the point since you obviously have no ideas in your empty head!

Or to take arms against that sea of troubles, and by closing my blog, end them. To sleep blog-free -- ‘tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To sleep... perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of bloglessness, what dreams may come?

Suddenly ideas would arise that cry out to be shared but have no place to live. Joy-visions or nightmares or something in between, they need an audience. Suddenly a void would yawn open where once there were words, where once there was an author and a book. Not even a grave would be left. The horror!

So there it is... the dread of something after blog-deletion, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes me rather bear those ills I have than fly to others that I know not of. And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought....

Okay, enough.

Certain internet marketing gurus would say that absolutely, blogging equals being. You don’t blog, you don’t exist. To be or not to be is really the question.

But that’s bull. My blog is definitely part of my attempt to let the world know about my book, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, and maybe future books -- but it is more than that. It has a personal soul-value. It’s both a mirror and a record of my inner life. It allows me to test my own ideas, to hone sentences, to make cogent points. It’s a bulletin board where I can tack up my latest thoughts for myself to look at, if no one else. And if someone does read and comment, that’s gravy.

It feels good to offer a connection to others, and to occasionally get a very nice response. Sharing ourselves is the essence of community. My blog is a step toward you with a hand out in welcome. I enjoy your response, but I don’t depend on it.

There’s no reason for me to feel pressure about blogging. I’ll post a blog entry whenever there’s that wonderful conjunction of the arising of an idea with the time to explore it in writing. It will be “occasional.” There may be gaps, but there will not be a gap forever. And that’s okay.

It will be what it will be, and whatever it will be will be good.

Fine. I’ve decided to keep my blog. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Mafia Story in Sound

I’m pleased to announce the debut of the audiobook edition of the critically acclaimed novella Saraceno by Djelloul Marbrook, narrated by the author. It’s available for download from Amazon, Audible, or iTunes. I had a good experience working with Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) for distribution. Recording was handled by Julie Last at Coldbrook Productions of Woodstock, NY, with some fine saxophone licks added by Peter Buettner.

A year ago, through my small publishing company, Bliss Plot Press, I launched the e-book version of Saraceno, which is available in all formats from Smashwords and other e-book retailers, or in Kindle format direct from Amazon. By year’s end, I’ll be announcing a trade paperback edition.

Saraceno has had a difficult history. Its original publisher folded before the book actually entered the market, but a few hardback copies continue to be traded on Amazon. It earned some laudatory reviews, excerpted here:

"Not just another run-of-the-mill Mafia novel." —Small Press Bookwatch

"Saraceno is an electric tone-poem straight from a world we only think we understand. An heir to George V. Higgins and David Mamet, Djelloul Marbrook writes dialogue that not only entertains with an intoxicating clickety-clack, but also packs a truth about low-life mob culture The Sopranos only hints at. You can practically smell the anisette and filling-station coffee."
—Dan Baum, author of Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans (Spiegel & Grau, 2009)

"…a good ear for crackling dialogue… I love Marbrook’s crude, raw music of the streets. The notes are authentic and on target…" —Sam Coale, The Providence (RI) Journal

"Strongly recommended as a remarkably crafted tale." —Midwest Book Review

"This lyrical and violent, funny and sad, hot and cool novella haunts us. Try it.” —Ann LaFarge, Taconic Weekend

And what follows is my own original review of the book, from About Town, 2005.

A New Type of Mafia Story

In "Saraceno," Djelloul Marbrook has crafted an entirely new variety of gangster tale. The story of a Mafia hit man and his friend, the grandson of the godfather, as each searches for his own true path, this compact novella is also a glass through which we see its author. "Saraceno" is an unlikely artifact: a Mafia story sculpted with the most refined of sensibilities from the clay of high art and philosophy, and then thoroughly suffused with love. This love is, first, the mysterious affection of a creator for his creations, a compassion for flawed humanity that drives the best fiction and makes its consumption a healthy activity. Second, it is the love of the characters for one another, from which redemption finally comes.

In Marbrook's narrative, "Il Saraceno" is the secret nickname given to the handsome and deadly Billy Salviati by his Mafia master, connoting both menace and respect--the historical view of the Sicilians toward their one-time rulers, the Arabs. Billy's life changes, as do the lives of his few friends, when he meets an elderly Jewish woman and is introduced to a library of the best writing and a rooftop full of roses. In an economical, erudite voice powered by an awesome vocabulary, Marbrook weaves bright strands of alchemy, art, literature, and religion into a dark Hell's Kitchen fabric.

If you're an aficionado of the recent spate of gangster yarns masquerading as psychological explorations while glorifying brutality, "Saraceno" may leave your bloodlust unfulfilled. This is no "Sopranos," no "Goodfellas," no "Godfather Part X." A nasty beating or two are in full view, but the much bloodier doings we know to be the currency of that world stay off-screen. In the same way that Paul Auster used the "detective" persona in his "New York Trilogy" to create works of art that delve into mysteries far deeper than "whodunit," and as a result got slammed by fans of the genre, so "Saraceno" takes higher aim, and may not be appreciated by those who prefer their reading tightly pigeonholed.

Djelloul Marbrook is the kind of writer I take real pleasure in discovering: a Hudson Valley neighbor and a mature artist whose rich body of work is finally coming to light. Marbrook's poetry collection, Far From Algiers, was the 2007 winner of the Wick Poetry Prize. His second poetry collection, Brushstrokes & Glances, was published by Deerbrook Editions in 2010, and his novella Artemisia’s Wolf by Prakash Books in 2011. His blog is always insightful: see

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September Morning

For an American writer, especially a New York writer, the events of ten years ago today reverberate in the cells, whispering for expression, but the whispers are always accompanied by the doubt that language can do justice to the actual experience. In my story collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, the event is woven into the fabric of more than one of the stories. But it's most explicitly expressed in the following excerpt from the story "Phoenix Egg: Three Vignettes." I wrote this specifically for a commemorative reading event on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, and its original title was "September Morning." Then it found it's way into the web-like weave of characters' lives that makes up the collection, and became something even bigger. Hope you like it.


Helen’s mind is not on business. It’s on a pinpoint, a potential, a something so microscopic it’s more a nothing. In her center, it hums.

Every morning there is this settling in, the transition from the crush and chaos of the street, subway, elevator, to the solitude of her office. The solitude that will last a precious three minutes before it gives way to another crush: the focus of work, the pressure of duty. She punches the power buttons: monitor then computer. She toes off her sneakers, still tied, and slides them with a nyloned foot under the desk. She’s not yet ready to put on the heels, the “torture-pedics” she calls them, so she stands in stocking feet looking out the window, a Starbucks cup still in her hand. Decaf, because it’s better for the ovaries.

She had woken before the alarm, in the still black time, and climbed out of bed without waking Daniel. His schedule was out of sync with hers; a dark gulf had opened between them. Daniel was deep in the final act of the novel he’d taken a year off to write, and often stared blankly into space, his lips moving slightly. Sometimes in conversation with her, mid-sentence, his eyes would glaze, his focus wander. Only rarely could she get him to let her in, and then he’d turn suddenly manic and pace the room, arms waving, acting out scenes in dialogue, changing voices—a villainous basso profundo, a girlish falsetto—and if it was a good day they would simultaneously realize the absurdity of this picture, and dissolve into laughter. Other times a black silence would descend.

But as his novel had grown, so had an irrational need in her, from somewhere deeper than she’d known before. Even this junior broker job she’d worked so long for, that had finally netted her these actual walls and a window, could fade away, and she could smile to see it go. Sometimes this was alarming, but less and less so.

This morning, in the glow of the night light in the bathroom, she had done her monthly test. She peed on the little plastic strip, on the Urine Collection Pad, holding it gingerly by the ergonomic Thumb Grip, then watched for the lines to appear in the Results Window. Yes—today could be Ovulation Day. Normally—the last three months—she would have waited until evening to take the next step, but this morning she felt a vague hormonal insistence that sent her back into the bed, naked, next to Daniel. She caressed him, and then it was as if their bodies took over.

It was quick but good, better than it had been in a very long time. At first, just blind urgent fumbling. Then in the dim light of dawn his eyes opened, clear, and locked to hers. The prodigal ecstasy returned, the inexplicable merging, the goodness that was pain just too sharp and sweet to bear. She melted, lost in him and in all of everything. After they came together and he kissed the tears that ran down to the pillows from the corners of her eyes, she knew that these were the moments of her life that most closely resembled prayer.

Now, she hears the beep and whir of her computer booting up. She drains the cup and stretches a long yoga stretch. Hand on her chest, she feels the pendant that hangs under her blouse, against her skin; the gift from Daniel last May for their fifth anniversary; the glowing egg shape that she knew was his unspoken way of empowering her inner alchemy with a magic amulet. She’s sure, yes, quite sure she feels the tiniest buzz in her belly: excited cells, busily dividing. She takes one more long look out the window at the view she loves: this incredible city spread out below, with her its goddess gazing down with overflowing tenderness from the 93rd floor. And somewhere in that far tiny tangle of roofs that may be Chelsea, her dear Daniel is just waking up, and now sun glimmers on both the big rivers, and the graceful bridges are like toys, and the city seems impossibly silent and peaceful. This is a moment that is almost like flying. And way out there to the north there’s a plane approaching, just a bright little dot in the cloudless blue sky.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Why the World Needs Fiction

Today I can say nothing better about writing than what I just read in George Ovitt's essay Fiction and Empathy in Atticus Review.

Why, in this bizarre circus of a world, do we even need fiction? My answer is that it might just be hardwired into us by evolution, to help ensure our species' survival, because, as Ovitt says, it "keeps us from committing the acts of cruelty that come so easily when we keep ourselves at an empathetic distance from others."

I hope you'll read this excellent article, and my thanks go out to George Ovitt and the good folks at Atticus Review!

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Splendid Time is Guaranteed for All

I’m happy to be in good company when I read selections from my book at an event being billed as “A Midsummer Night's Fiction,” Saturday July 30, 6:00 pm. The fun will be happening at Oriole 9, a restaurant on Tinker Street in the center of Woodstock, NY.

Also reading his fiction will be my friend Robert Burke Warren, whose son once married my daughter in a mock Indian wedding at summer camp. The last time I heard him do a music set (at ‘Cue) I was wondering who gave him a list of my favorite songs. And he writes some darn good book reviews on Goodreads too. Here's his bio:

Robert Burke Warren has held down bass duties in rock bands, written songs with Rosanne Cash, performed the lead in the hit West End musical Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story, and introduced legions of families to interactive music via his award-winning, Grammy-nominated “rock of all ages” persona Uncle Rock (“Buddy Holly meets Shel Silverstein.” - LA Times).His prose has appeared in Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, the Woodstock Times,, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I’ll Never Forget.

The third member of our fiction threesome is Alethea Black. I’ve never met Alethea, but I do know that she’s done something difficult: she got a literary short story collection traditionally published in the current marketplace. Plus, I like that she called me a "splendid hipster" on her website (that calls for a "LOL," doesn't it?). More about her:

Alethea Black's debut collection of short stories, I KNEW YOU'D BE LOVELY (Broadway Books/Random House), has been called "smart ... full of heart" by Joan Silber and "downright brilliant" by Robert Olen Butler. Her work has won the Arts & Letters Prize, has been cited as distinguished in The Best American Short Stories, and has been read at venues around the country by such talents as Campbell Scott and Michael Cerveris.

I have no doubt this will be an entertaining evening!

Wine, beer, coffee, tea, lemonade available for purchase from Oriole 9. Flasks frowned upon.
Oriole 9: 17 Tinker Street, 845-679-5763

The event is co-sponsored by The Golden Notebook and is a presentation of Rock City Readings, curated by Teresa Giordano and Jana Martin.

About Rock City Readings:
Rock City Readings began in 2009 when, after spending a week in her Saugerties summer home, founder Teresa Giordano realized that although she was surrounded by opportunities to hike, kayak, and bike, what she really wanted was to hear good stories. So she started Rock City Readings. With some persistence and an introduction to Chronogram Books Editor Nina Shengold, she was able to host and present such authors as Helen Benedict, Jon Bowermaster, Cornelius Eady, James Lasdun, and more. Jana Martin became a welcome and frequent reader, a loyal audience member and in 2011 a partner and co-curator of the series. Jana's energy and vision brought the series to a new level of creativity.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Nondual Auster, Metaphysical Detective

As I look further into both ancient and modern philosophies of Nonduality, I'm feeling obsessed by the challenge of embodying those ideas in the fiction I'm writing. Just creating the kinds of stories that once satisfied me (a sort of literary humanist realism) is no longer enough. Besides believability, poignance, and craft, I need something deeper, a sense of meaning that hides behind "reality" like a face behind a mask.

In my story collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, I began to peek behind that mask by linking characters and their separate stories in subtle ways, implying the Net of Indra as a vision of background truth. In my novel-in-progress, I hope to go further, manifesting the mysterious workings of a Unified Field that paradoxically contains the dualities necessary for not only human drama but also the language required to tell the stories. I'm inching forward like a man newly blind.

But I'm grateful to have guideposts, in the form of old friends, favorite authors. With a buzz of recognition, I'm discovering new explanations for the elements that hooked me long ago on the early work of Paul Auster--in particular, The New York Trilogy. As I walked the streets of Manhattan at the beginning of the '90s, my head was often full of the deliciously strange mysteries in that slim volume, which is made up of three novellas that interconnect like an Escher illusion. In City of Glass, a novelist poses as a detective and gets entangled in a case that consumes him. In Ghosts, a private eye's surveillance of his subject leads him to existential crisis. In The Locked Room a man obsessively follows his missing friend into a labyrinth of blurred identity. This is work that borrows conventions from mystery fiction, then proceeds to subvert the genre--by some estimations failing to satisfy, by others succeeding through transcending predictable outcomes. The trilogy can be seen as a prototype of "metaphysical detective fiction," in which the world is one of questions, not answers; interpretations, not solutions; and the sleuth is seeking not "Whodunit" but "Who am I?"

Much academic ink has already been spilled dissecting Auster's work, much of it dense analysis of postmodern complexities that are intriguing but don't lead beyond the ivory tower. My reading has just scratched the surface, but occasionally I've spied threads of higher meaning that I'm attempting to trace here. I won't footnote the following ramblings, but you can follow the links if you want to go deeper.

One of Auster's primary themes, the primacy of language-based narrative, comes out of Lacanian psychoanalysis: (in Wikipedia's words) "We observe the world through our senses but the world we sense is structured (mediated) in our mind through language. Thus our subconscious is also structured as a language. This leaves us with a sense of anomaly. We can only perceive the world through language, but we have the feeling of a lack. The lack is the sense of a being outside of language. The world can only be constructed through language but it always leaves something uncovered, something that can not be told and be thought of, it can only be sensed."

For me, this is a pointer toward a nondual Absolute that cannot be captured in language, since language is inherently dualistic.

Here are a couple more writers who explore the language issue, and take it even further: Alison Russell, in Deconstructing The New York Trilogy: Paul Auster's Anti-Detective Fiction leans on Jacques Derrida when she says: "Logocentrism, the term applied to uses and theories of language grounded in the metaphysics of presence, is the "crime" that Auster investi­gates in The New York Trilogy. In each volume, the detective searches for "presence": an ultimate referent or foundation outside the play of language itself. This quest for correspondence between signifier and signified is inex­tricably related to each protagonist's quest for origin and identity, for the self only exists insofar as language grants existence to it." And Richard Swope’s article (recommended) in the journal Reconstruction adds, "the questor can never arrive at his desired destination, for in this world signifiers are not attached to signifieds, while the distinction between self and other no longer holds."

Presence... the quest for identity... no distinction between self and other... hmm... sounds familiar if you read current nonduality writings.

In an article called Mirrors of Madness, Steven E. Alford writes, "The New York Trilogy holds a mirror up to our own madness--the assumption of our hermetic individuality.... " and "The particular contribution of The New York Trilogy is that in each story, we see the realization of the "substancelessness" of the self in its psychological dimension...." And he quotes Anthony Paul Kerby, Narrative and the Self: "One cannot become 'I' without an implicit reference to another person, an auditor or narratee--which may be the same subject qua listener. 'I' functions in contrast to 'you' in much the same way as 'here' refers linguistically to 'there' rather than any fixed location."

We are not sealed off from each other... the self has no substance... as here is there, so I am you... hmm... the echoes continue.

Interesting how much all of this sounds like a favorite website of mine, Science and Nonduality. Here's the description of their annual conference:

It seems agreed upon by spiritual masters of all traditions that the main reason for our suffering is the identification with the “I” and the way to dissipate this pain is to merge with what is beyond the “I”, to merge the looker with what is looked at. Science, on the other hand, can help us to understand how we construct and experience the “I”, as well as the states beyond it. ... Some of the topics we will explore are:

--Observing and experiencing how the “I” arises (Neuroscience, Psychology)
--Looking at the Macro (Cosmology) and the Micro (Biology, Quantum Theory) to reframe the “I” and give a different perspective and bring it “beyond”
--The collapse of concepts, identifications and models (Experiential)
--Glimpses of nondual awareness, no-state states beyond words and ideas (Satsang, Poetry, Art, Music and more...)

To repeat a reference from an earlier post: Alan Watts said that “I” is just the universe “eyeing.” We have met the vastness, and it is us.

Who am I? Auster asks the unanswerable question by blurring the distinctions between author, narrator, and character. In City of Glass he introduces a character named Paul Auster who is virtually identical to his “real” self, and gives a twist ending that leaves the identity of the story’s narrator entirely unknown. Maybe that narrator is the same as in the subsequent novellas, maybe not. You decide. It meshes well with a book I just finished, Biocentrism by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman. They use quantum physics to support the conjecture that life creates the universe rather than the other way around. That there is no reality without a conscious observer. You are the author, which is to say, each of us is the author. The universe is omnicentric, as cosmologist Brian Swimme has stated.

In the early '90s when I first read The New York Trilogy, none of this was in my awareness. I only knew that there was a sense of metaphysical or ontogical mystery woven into the fabric of these three stories that I found incredibly compelling. To give a thorough sample, to really make you feel it, would require quoting the whole book. But here are a few clippings that give a hint of what Auster was doing that grabbed me then and sticks with me still.

From City of Glass:
[Why the hero, Quinn, likes detective novels] Everything becomes essence; the center of the book shifts with each event that propels it forward. The center, then, is everywhere, and no circumference can be drawn until the book has come to its end.
Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within.... By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks he was able to feel that he was nowhere. And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.

From Ghosts:
For in spying out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself.
Something happens, Blue thinks, and then it goes on happening forever. It can never be changed, can never be otherwise.

From The Locked Room:
My true place in the world, it turned out, was somewhere beyond myself, and if that place was inside me, it was also unlocatable. This was the tiny hole between self and not-self, and for the first time in my life I saw this nowhere as the exact center of the world.

This discussion doesn’t approach Auster’s other writings that build on the same themes, nor does it touch the issue of Chance, that slippery sliding scale of coincidence vs. fate, which is another key element in the Trilogy and most of Auster’s other work. But for now, it’s all I’m able to tackle.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been fascinated by how nonduality can be expressed in literary storytelling. This little essay has been part of that study. So... it seems my next task, now that I’ve ingested so much theory, is to drop it all and just write.

In other words: to get on with being the Author, and to observe the universe as I create it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Do you like book trailers?

While my two novels-in-progress lie fallow and my subconscious chews on them, I’ve found myself drawn back to more visual forms of self-expression. The lion’s share of my work life has been in the field of video production, after getting a film degree and aspiring to make movies -- the serious artsy drama kind. Also, I was a photographer before I was a writer, and before that I loved to draw -- which often took the form of narrative, as in comics and storyboards.

So I’m feeling fortunate these days to be able to connect my literary and visual interests by making short video commercials for books: “book trailers” as they’re called. I started with a very short one (meant to be the first of several) for my own book, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility (see this new review). Watch the video here:

Then I made two videos each for the two poetry books by my friend Djelloul Marbrook. They can be seen here on YouTube:
Flutes of the Djinn:
Adeline Compton:

I just finished this 2-minute trailer for a new novel published by a small press in Maryland, Atticus Books:
(Go to YouTube to see it bigger:

It seems that book trailers are rapidly becoming a required weapon in the book marketer’s arsenal. But do they really work? Do you watch them? Do you seek them out? Do you feel influenced to take a closer look at the book, or even buy it? Do they ever have the opposite effect? Do you resist the whole idea?

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, April 1, 2011

All Fool's Day

In 1392, in the famous Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer named a date that we can interpret as the 32nd of March, or April 1. Set on that day was the "Nun’s Priest’s Tale," in which (in a story within a story within a story), the Chanticleer (a rooster) and the Fox are each fooled by the other. That was the earliest recorded association between the first of April and foolishness.

For the animals in Chaucer’s fable, vanity and pride were their undoing. For the humans in my story collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, there are other ways of being foolish.

Harold, who appears in several of the stories, is perpetually bewildered about why his life feels broken and his marriages crumble. His self-image as a family man does not match apparent reality. He has buried his grief and guilt over his brother’s death.

Sid doesn’t like to face any big questions. He wants a God who is an office manager, with easy answers. He’s happy when things are simple, but having a son in a coma does not fit that picture.

Marv may be the holiest fool in the book, a plumber who dreams of popcorn farming. He’s frequently clueless but has occasional inadvertent flashes of real wisdom. Too bad it’s so difficult for him to communicate them, even to his friend Sid. Marv is introduced in this little sketch from the story "This Handful of Pebbles":


When Marv's girlfriend Polly told him he needed to get his finances in order, he went out that very afternoon and bought a money clip. Shiny brass with cherrywood inlay.

It didn't work; she left him anyway. But it wasn't because of his disorderly finances. It was because of his distinct lack of gift-wrapping talent. At every holiday that demanded paper-and-ribbon dexterity, his appalling ineptitude became more clear. “I can't bear this, TM.” she said on Christmas morning. “I have to go.” After two years of living together, she moved out on New Year's Day.

Polly is the only person who ever called Marv “TM,” and it has always rung in his ears with a faint derision, especially now, when during each of their frequent phone conversations, she hints at the presence of other men in her life. He finds himself able to shrug off those oblique references, but the repeated “TM” digs at him like a claw.

Marv is a plumber. Naturally, he does not tell the guys at the supply house that at night, sometimes he weeps.

When Marv carefully makes out an estimate for a client, in triplicate, his official signature reads “T. Marvin Felch.” His first name, Tender, he keeps strictly to himself.

As I look objectively at my own work, I find it interesting that none of my female characters qualify as fools. Or maybe that’s a facile generalization. There are at least a couple of women in the stories who are less than exemplary. Still, it would appear that in my view, the women are the wise ones. So there's something I need to look at: my streak of self-deprecatory sexism.

Also, I’ve written many other male characters who make bad decisions but cannot be called fools. They might be young and wild, old and tired, alcoholic, lonely, self-deluded in some way, but they have just enough of their wits about them to escape foolishness. With Harold, Sid, and Marv, I have an authorial relationship that is subtly different, especially when I’m telling their stories in the third person. They lead me by their own unconsciousness toward intuitive lessons. They are the blind leading the blind, where walking in darkness is precisely what is needed.

The Holy Fool is an archetype in every culture. Sometimes a savior (St. Francis), sometimes a clown (Coyote), sometimes a nasty killer (The Joker), he is usually portrayed as behaving outside the bounds of “normal” society. His rule-breaking opens gateways to deeper truths that the culture needs. He is both a bad child and a tool in the hands of a God who might be loving, or might not.

My fools are different: their behavior is not outrageous, but they are still instruments in the hands of the Author, me, to open doors. I can’t say how readers will feel, or what they might learn. But for me, Harold, Sid, and Marv are friends for whom I feel a little pity and a lot of fondness. They are boys, not men, and they need my love. They embody my own inner fool, who teaches me how to be wise.

Friday, March 18, 2011

My Little Fantasy

Last week I returned from a visit to New Orleans, a trek I make annually at Mardi Gras time to assist my wife, a mask-maker, with her business. This year was different. Instead of staying in a bland corporate hotel outside the city, we were privileged to stay at a friend’s old family home in the French Quarter.

To protect our host’s privacy, I won’t post photos. But imagine this: tucked away amongst the crowded Creole cottages and narrow wooden shotgun houses is a wide frontage of brick wall, variegated browns spotted with algae, its seven feet topped with an overspilling tangle of ivy. A dead-bolted wrought-iron door opens into a lush, quiet garden, small lawns trimmed with flowering shrubs of various kinds. A cobblestone walkway leads to a little ornate fountain in the shade of huge spreading oak. Magnolia blossoms float on the still surface of the water. A two-story house with deep balconies, painted a soft pink with white trim, stands beyond the fountain and the oak. Part of the house is hidden behind another leafy wall that creates a small private courtyard, an inner sanctum. At the left of the property a pink cottage is hidden behind yet another ivy-covered wall.

It feels as if you’ve left the raucous streets of New Orleans far behind.

My host tells me that the current house was once slave quarters. The main house had stood where the garden is now, but burned down in the 1800s.

The cottage had been a doctor’s office. Its narrow double French doors open into a kitchen that is tiny but well-equipped. There is a closet-sized bathroom off the kitchen. The main room is actually rather spacious, with two twin beds, a trunk between them, a chest of drawers, and an armoire that holds a TV. That quaint little dwelling, with its own green wall and its cozy cobbled patio filled by chairs and a table with umbrella, is the site of my fantasy.

This would be the ideal place to be a writer in New Orleans. To let my inner Tennessee Williams out. I imagine myself getting up on a cool spring morning and sitting out at the table with a steaming cup of chicory coffee and a notebook, jotting ideas, maybe recording my dreams from the night before. Sometimes I would stroll a few blocks to Cafe Envie for “the best breakfast in the Quarter.” A bit of rubbing shoulders with fellow denizens of the Vieux Carre, and I’d be ready to go back to the cottage and spend a few solid hours in its sheltered nook, my laptop open under the patio umbrella. Voices, engines, the sounds of the city, would come to me as if through a filter, just distant enough to keep me in contact, but easily moved to the background -- the soundtrack to whatever drama is playing out in sentences on my screen. On the hot or cold or wet days, I’d be at the little wooden table inside, just a bit more disconnected from the city, but never entirely cut off.

At any time, I could get up, step through the glass door and round the leafy wall, say hello to my neighbors if they’re out under the oak, and walk the little path to the wrought-iron door, the portal from my inner space to the big world outside. And this is not just any city, not just another neighborhood. Everybody knows: New Orleans is a rich spicy soup, a gumbo of exotic architecture, wild characters, dark history, fabulous food, and music music music. Sights, sounds, smells -- pleasant or not, everything is a stimulant; nothing is bland. For me, the writing mind kicks into high gear; stories are everywhere.

Obviously, others feel the same way. At dinner in an unpretentious little Italian restaurant, my wife and I started a conversation with a young guy dining alone at the next table. He had a degree in literature. This meal was his breakfast because he worked an all-night bartending job to support his writing habit: a novel and a poetry book done but unpublished; in progress, a non-fiction account of his colorful life in the French Quarter. A couple days later we saw him again as we ate breakfast (his dinner) at nearby tables. I passed him some publisher contact information. I never learned his name.

All of this reminded me of one of my literary heroes, Tennessee Williams. At least a decade earlier, I had stopped into the delicious little store in Pirate’s Alley, Faulkner House Books, and picked up a very slim volume about Williams. I strolled a couple blocks to Orleans Street and sat in a coffee bar to read. The book told me that during one of Williams’ periods in New Orleans, he had lived in a second floor apartment, and it gave the address -- on Orleans Street. I stood from my table, book in hand, and walked out to the street where I could see the house numbers. I turned around and there it was, the number above the door and the stairwell leading up. Tennessee Williams had lived directly above where I was sitting, reading about him.

These subtle lines of connection and coincidence are part of the fabric of my story collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility. It even has a New Orleans vignette. But the New Orleans stories I’ve long thought were in me have still never come out -- I suspect because I’ve never really spent time there, living, relaxing, settling in. It’s always been a business hustle. So that’s why our lovely four-night stay in the cottage behind the wall sparked this little French Quarter writer’s fantasy.

Hmm... maybe someday.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Writing My Story / Dropping My Story

This last couple of weeks, my thoughts have been back in the 70s. In the second week of February, 1974, my daughter was born (the photo was taken just two hours after her home birth) -- when I was only 21 and her mother 18 (and we’d already been married for a year -- crazy children!). Birthdays have a way of superimposing present over past like images on transparent film, layer upon layer. Plus, my niece just posted old family photos on Facebook, several of which I had shot, and the memories piled up even thicker.

Today that tiny baby in the picture is an awesome grown woman. She became an entirely different being in the intervening years, as did I. Or is each of us still “the same person” we were then? Hmmm....

A slight twist on that question is whether each life is a cohesive arching novel or a series of disconnected flash-fiction stories. An article I read a year or more ago, The End of the Episode by Lee Siegel, brings into the realm of literature a philosophical question first explored by British philosopher Galen Strawson. Narrative or Episodic: which are you?

I have a “life story” like everyone has, and I can choose to see it as one big narrative, or as a series of disconnected episodes. So what would it mean to write “my story?”

My friends Fred and Marta, dedicated memoirists who run the popular Authentic Writing workshops, are strong proponents of writing one’s story. They make this powerful statement on their website: “Authentic Writing directs writers to return to their most essential, personal material – the content of their actual lives – and to render those stories not in pious ephemeral terms, but in tough, concrete ones.” I believe in this dictum, but I don’t write memoir. I prefer to write fiction. So I interpret the directive loosely: that is, my internal life, my imaginings, my metaphorical phantasms, are a crucial part of my “actual life.” And what is good fiction if not a rich, complex mixture of the “real” and the “imagined?” The difference between those two is slippery at best -- just two different doors in my mind that may lead to the same big room.

So -- my fiction is my story. And maybe it’s a tool for transcending that other story, the one that’s made up of dates and places and people in “reality” (which is to say, in my memory, behind the door labeled “Real”). In my weekly therapy group, I experience the undeniable value of dragging stories out of that Real closet, seeking the catharsis and healing of emotional re-enactment, and I prefer to keep those actualities in that setting rather than being bound by them in my creative writing life.

Why would I want to transcend my personal history? Because it is not me. A conventional wisdom worth knocking down is that one’s personal history is closely related, if not identical, to this thing we call a “self.”

What I’m pointing at here lies, I hope, at a deeper level than the Narrative vs. Episodic debate. According to neuro-philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, the self is no more than an abstraction, similar to the “center of gravity” in physics. In The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity (1986), he says we are all virtuoso novelists: “We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the center of that autobiography is one's self. And if you still want to know what the self really is, you're making a category mistake.” In The Origins of Selves (1989), he compares humans to beavers and spiders: “Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not building dams or spinning webs, but telling stories -- and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others -- and ourselves -- about who we are.”

Dennett would probably never agree with me, but I take his pronouncements about the unreality of individual selves to support the idea of a bigger, unified Self: an overarching Consciousness or Awareness, of which each of us is an illusory part, a flickering reflection. Alan Watts says all this best with two great quotes: “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth,” and “I is just the Universe eyeing.”

We’re all in the same predicament. Linking the moments of our waking lives together across the years is a game we humans are compelled to play by fear of emptiness. Or perhaps, more than a game, this continuity of memory is a crucial survival device created by our fragile egos to organize life-threatening chaos. On Day One of a life, the human nervous system begins weaving a nearly impenetrable curtain to shield itself from the Great Beyond (misinterpreted as annihilation). As babies facing the trauma of separation from our mothers, we begin creating False Selves, neuroses that govern the rest of our lives, unless we see them and leave them behind. (For more, see Stephen Wolinsky’s Quantum Psychology ideas, such as in Waking from the Trance.)

Am I my past, the sum of my memories? Am I my psychology, my bundle of neuroses? Am I the story I’ve manufactured to keep my ego intact? Am I my family, hometown, church? Am I this aging body?

Well, back in the 70s, all these psycho-philoso-metaphysics were not the things I was thinking about. Am I my thoughts? Whatever the answer, I am very different now. It often seems that I carry around memories of some other person’s life (perhaps implanted in my mind as I slept!). Who was that guy? And the trajectory of my daughter’s path -- from her birth in a little house in Utah where my mother was once a child, to a tropical island where she now does bodywork and healing, in between diving excursions -- seems to grow ever more divergent from mine. Our connection is biological and so much more, but where are the intersections of our lives, our pasts, our selves, today and tomorrow?

In one of the best recent sessions of my therapy group, I talked about my chronic tendency to see myself as a failure with a capital F. It’s a complex issue related to infancy, adolescent rebellion, my parents’ religion, so much more... but it is also just a bad habit. An identity choice. A costume. My therapist said, “You’ve got to be willing to take off that suit.”

To grow, I must be willing to drop my story.

The only way to find out who you are, taught Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, is to find out first who you are not. You soon see the answer is neti neti: not this, not that, not this, not that (on and on).... But that’s another investigation.

Adi Shankara, 1st century Advaita (nondualist) philosopher, said: "That which permeates all, which nothing transcends and which, like the universal space around us, fills everything completely from within and without, that Supreme non-dual Brahman -- that thou are."

So then, who am I? I am That. I am a discontinuous, non-local point of awareness, or rather Awareness, manifesting as a man in this space and time.

I must tell my story / I must drop my story. I love this perfect nondual paradox, and in its precarious balance is where I live every day.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

So Many Thoughts, So Little Time

The first three weeks of 2011 have been full of snow and labor, accompanied always by interweaving tendrils of thought rising like smoke and drifting away into nothingness, uncaptured. The phantom we call time flexes its invisible muscle and presses relentlessly forward, duties get done, and imaginings and insubstantial speculations fall away. But perhaps they fall like breadcrumbs, leaving a path to follow back if the birds don't eat them first.

I always hope to make pithy comments on books I'm reading, but they consistently slip into the past before I can speak, and I'm on to the next one. I can only trust that they're adding to the raw material of future creation. In 2010, I finished these (in no particular order): One: Essential Readings on Nonduality by Jerry Katz; The American Book of the Dead by Henry Baum; Remembering: A Novel by Wendell Berry; It's Beginnning to Hurt: Stories by James Lasdun; The Splendor of Antiquity by Cheryl Anne Gardner; Love in the City of Grudges by Will Nixon; Finders, Seekers, Losers, Keepers by Heather Rowland; The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton; Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle by Ellen Gilchrist; The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler; The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry; This Is Not About What You Think and Living with the Truth, both by Jim Murdoch; Invisible and Sunset Park, both by Paul Auster; If I Love My Kid Enough by Sara-Jane Hardman & Jean Roe Mauro; Standing as Awareness by Greg Goode; Brushstrokes and Glances by Djelloul Marbrook. Only Jim Murdoch's poetry got any space on this blog, but some of the others are finding their way into blogs-in-progress or notes on future work.

Right now, I'm reading these: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman, Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander -- all of them fueling the story creation factory in my head (or the general vicinity of my head...).

I've enjoyed pondering the implications of a 2008 study that showed that we are not consciously aware of making a decision to act until as much as seven seconds after the decision has already been made in our brain. This would seem to suggest that the much-worshipped "free will" that we take for granted as humans may be an illusion. Are actions predetermined? Discuss amongst yourselves.

I haven't yet found the connection between that and the mysterious way that reading aloud one of my long-unread stories brings sudden rushes of emotion in unexpected places, choking me up. This is why I have to rehearse before a public reading, so those moments don't take me by suprise in front of an audience. The subconscious is a... a what... a tangled net, a deep abyss, a powerful engine? All of those.

Now I'm entering a deliciously revolutionary approach to cosmology through Lanza and Berman's book Biocentrism. Solid science supports ancient mystical wisdom: perhaps there is no objective reality; there is only what we are perceiving in the here and now.

And so... all these thoughts and so many more roiling around in my mind, intertwining and spiraling, begging for expression, and when I can breathe deep and find a moment's stillness, I see that they are like the weather... they come and go, but still the sky remains. That's the real thing to explore: the space between the thoughts. Problem is, it can never be captured in words. So what's a writer to do?

Just let go.