Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

All of 2009 for me was focused on bringing my collection of stories, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, into the world. I deeply appreciate all of you who bought it, read it, reviewed it... and I hope it touched you in some small way that lasts.

I just returned home a few days ago from a little adventure to the opposite coast, where encounters with family, new and not-so-new friends, and many strangers, served to further cement my awe at this vast web of interconnectedness that gives us unenlightened humans an occasional glimpse of the Unity behind the illusion of our everyday lives.

Now I'm getting ready to turn this computer off for the final time this year, and head toward a celebration with close friends, children, pets, music, good food and drink, and much love.

Thank you for reading, and may your 2010 be full of peace, insight, and many happy moments!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

An Austerrific Moment (my first blog post 3 years ago)

On MySpace three years ago today, I posted my first blog entry ever. It still expresses something that feels true to me, so here it is again:

I always dig it when these things happen: Last weekend, I had just eagerly retrieved my copy of Paul Auster's 2003 novel Oracle Night, months overdue on loan to my sister, and begun reading it for the second time. I had only progressed maybe a dozen pages, enough to revive my memories of the book's delicious, convoluted mysteriousness -- its novel within a novel within a novel, in which men encounter chance events that lead them to the limits of themselves -- when I put the jacket flap between the pages to mark my spot and laid the book aside, to be continued later. That night, I went to a party at a lovely little cabin in the woods of the Catskills and met several strangers, among whom was an interesting man -- I'll call him "A." -- who spoke about his "former life" in New York City, where he had published a prestigious photography magazine whose name was familiar to me because of my own history with art photography. The following day I indulged my curiosity and looked up the magazine on the Internet; I only knew A.'s first name, and could not find it on the magazine's website. But with some help from Google, I deduced that his story was true. On the website, under the heading "Artists A-Z", I read a couple of Forewords by the editor (A.'s former wife). I noticed that they had published a number of fiction pieces, and the first link on the list was Paul Auster. When I clicked on the link, it opened an excerpt from Oracle Night, familiar because I had just read those very same sentences. The excerpt ended at the precise spot where I had left off reading the day before.

This may seem like merely an odd little coincidence, but I felt deeper currents flowing. My sister was with me at the party, and she had, just weeks before, left her husband and moved from their nice suburban home into a small apartment. She didn't reveal that to A., but a good part of our conversation with him was about making big life changes: the death of one's old life; the birth of one's new life. As I (and many of us at the party) had done, A. had left his city existence for an entirely different kind of life in the mountains, where an unexpected set of country joys and struggles replaced the old urban set. But the synchronicity at work was not about city vs. country living, but about the deeper mechanisms operating when a person makes a bold commitment and leaps from one life to another. In the realm of soul, it is as literal a death and rebirth as is the process going on at a cellular level every day, by which our bodies entirely recycle themselves every seven years. Its closest analog is suicide: a conscious rejection of the status quo in favor of the mystery. And quantum reality suggests that if we could see beyond "death," it would be revealed as just another life transition perhaps not much bigger than moving from the Lower East Side to the Catskills. So there we all were, A. and I and all the rest, a houseful of suicides chatting, while on my endtable at home, Auster's book was sitting with jacket-flap marking the synchronous page. That page was where the narrator, a writer, was beginning a new novel based on an obscure episode in Dashiell Hammet's "The Maltese Falcon," in which a man narrowly escapes an accidental death, suddenly sees his mundane life in a new light, and, on a radical impulse, leaves it behind -- job, family, and all. Auster's novel-within-a-novel then begins its own imaginary investigation, carefully following a parallel thread in the same philosophic fabric.

Concurrently, another parallel was at work. For the past few months, I had been reading and thinking a lot about the nature of the universe, through the lenses of both quantum physics and ancient wisdoms, contemplating the way that the macrocosm and the microcosm are mirrors of each other. We live in a fractal world; whatever scale we choose to observe, the same patterns are visible. The atom is analagous to the solar system; each cell running its errands in the ecology of a human body is analogous to the full individual filling a role in society. Each of us watches from the center of our own world in this omnicentric universe, surrounded by texts inside of texts inside of texts, which spiral both directions into infinity as they busily scroll out their storylines in full Everywhereness and total Simultaneity in the fabric of space/time. So when Auster tells his tale of a novelist telling a tale that includes another novelist who has told a tale about a man who sees the future, he is capturing a truth about the unity of reality and giving us clues for predicting our own futures in the spiral of time, whether for good or ill. It seemed like perfect coincidence to me that the topics on my mind were suddenly before me on the page.

Auster has said that although occurrences like this are constants in his life, they are essentially meaningless. I disagree. In my opinion, they are evidence that, while our everyday lives may be wrapped up in the myth of Three Dimensions plus Time, and in the illusion of our own separateness from everything else, there is a deeper truth. All events and objects and sentient beings in this omnicentric universe are One, and are occurring in the same infinite Now. What we call "physical reality" is totally unverifiable; all is perception, and each of us perceives from his own center. Like the widely separated particles in the nuclear physics lab, dancing in tandem with an invisible connection, tiny flickers of energy in the quantum field occasionally reach the surface of our awareness in a manner that we, with our limited view, can only interpret as "coincidence." And mind-body medicine has shown us that thoughts and feelings are events in the field just as truly as are molecules undergoing chemical reactions. Synchronicities are the rhymes in the poem of One Reality. If you're tuned in, they're everywhere.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Melody Lines

Among my story collection's various threads of interconnection are a recurring character (Wes, the sax player), a musical "score" (jazz), and a thematic element (alcoholism), all introduced in the story "Blues for Jane." Later, Wes gets the full historical treatment in "The Saxophone," invisibly influences various strangers in "Echoes," and makes a brief appearance in someone else's story, "A Confession of Love and Emptiness." In these opening paragraphs, we meet him in the midst of a self-pity crisis...

Blues for Jane (excerpt)

I tried to be Sonny Rollins tonight, but instead I sounded like Sonny Ferguson, the fat kid who played second saxophone in my high school marching band, honking like a donkey next to me, twenty years ago. All my cells, angry, buzz: just another tenor man, just another one, one more tiny loser cringing in a dark corner of big cruel America. This tour was a waste, and I can’t drink.

Maybe it’s finally time to give up.

I stand in the shower, in the slimy motel steam, until my fingers are crushed velvet, and when I come out, Jane is in bed, lights out, eyes closed. The rainforest drum and sizzle seem to follow me and I realize the desert sky is pouring outside. Today was a hot, still day, dry and dusty, with that waiting tension in the air, the familiar electrons-humming-in-wires tension like before the first note of every gig, the dull tension that is now being washed away by this western rain, no same old New York drizzle, but pounding big drops of rain, much much bigger than tears.

As I stand naked in darkness, holding the drape aside, staring out at the wet street, Jane comes up behind me. She wraps her arms around my stomach, presses her breasts against my back, and whispers, “Come to bed with me?”

“I’m not tired.” I don’t turn.

“I know. Let me feel some of that energy.” She strokes my chest.

“I feel like taking a walk.”

“But it’s raining.”


I feel her smile; her cheek rests on my shoulder blade. She sighs and murmurs, “Boy, are you a piece a work.”

My breath goes out with a sound like opening a beer can. It’s sarcastic and dismissive, like I hoped. Her face lifts from my back and her voice goes sharp. “Wes, give yourself a break, for God’s sake.”

So maybe I’m finally getting to her. She’s been slow; with other women it was always fast work, boom bam, woman gone, me alone again, bitter drunk. But that was before.

For a blink she’s ice, but then she melts, touches me, her voice a whisper, low and smooth. “You know, I get so hot watching you play, the way you hold your...”

“Yeah, yeah, man and his tools. Everything gets you hot.” I forcefully remove her long arms from around me. “I’m going out.”

I get dressed; Jane doesn’t move. I feel something, maybe good, tough anyway, leaving her flat. This is not the first time. She stands there naked, not sure what to do with her hands so she hugs herself, a tall girl with big sad eyes, looking at the wall, at vacation romance fading, a film’s end, black. I button my shirt, slow fingers moving up like I’m playing a ballad on worn brass keys.

I remember there was a little of her look, the lonely part of her look, in those wide eyes the night I first saw her in the little club on Second Street in Jersey City, watching me solo. Those eyes were lighthouse beacons piercing the smoke, headlights in the fog bearing down on me, a truck, a train of trucks, roaring like wind through misty midnight straight at me, me and my rambling solo, and suddenly I was caught, pinned in the glare, so self-conscious, every fingering suddenly suspect, my stance pretentious, my breathing so obviously faulty, and I closed my eyes and prayed, closed my eyes and fell away from that wide pure stare into the rhythm, and breathed, and finished okay. As Joey began his piano riff, I opened my eyes to meet hers, wide again but with a little smile, a shy smile, no more trucks in the fog, just a girl, and she clapped her hands, and I made a small bow, and then I watched her move through pools of light and smoke, moving like a young racehorse, all legs, long legs rolling from the hip joint, the young awkwardness of big feet, big hands, big shy head, eyes down as she moved through the dimness in long steps, all odd grace, all awkward pieces joined into smooth flow, big eyes glancing at me once more from the bar, and I knew I’d see her after that set, and after that night.

Now, here, my hand is on the door. She’s looking away.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's All a Fiction

A week ago as I introduced the story I read at my booksigning at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, there were several things I meant to say but didn't. Things that simply left my head the instant I stepped to the microphone. Hmm... by now I should have learned to make notes.

One of those things was that I love the blurry boundary between fact and fiction. I chose to read at CPW because in my story "Signs" I set an important scene there and had conjured up two fictional bodies of photographic work to fill the gallery walls. It was a real place, but filled with imaginary art and imaginary people, like a parallel universe -- almost ours but just a bit different. As I read, it was as if apparitions from the story floated half-visible in the room with us.

In another story in my collection, "A Confession of Love and Emptiness," the narrator (a total fiction) faces the legacy of being related to (the real person) Peter Roget, of Thesaurus fame. And he watches as his father's demolition company (entirely imaginary) tears down a neighborhood to make way for Lincoln Center in New York City (truth) -- the very block that was the (actual) childhood home of Thelonious Monk. He goes on to say:

Ten years later, Alice and I sat in the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center, watching LaBoheme, Rodolfo singing to Mimi that her beauty is like the sunrise, and Mimi, dying, crying back, no, like a sunset, and Alice was in tears, but I was seeing all around us the faint outlines of buildings, brownstones with light in the windows, and through the shimmering walls I could see the rows of finely dressed New Yorkers in a grand golden hall. It was like those Kirlian photographs I’ve seen since, where the image of a leaf is whole, unharmed, although its tip had been torn off before the photo was made, and I thought: build and destroy, build and destroy, that is the way of the universe, the way of God. All things built, once destroyed, leave their imprint forever, ghost shapes that linger in the gaps, made of quarks and neutrinos and photons, everywhere, like the memory of water that hides in ice, like the possibility of ice that hides in water.

The ghostly side-by-side existence of multiple realities -- fiction/fact, past/present -- is more than just a writerly game that's fun to play. For me, it's a metaphoric description of actuality.

It works on more than one level. Quantum physics and string theory provide the foundation for simultaneous time, distanceless space, and an infinite number of parallel universes. Ancient wisdom traditions like Advaita (literally, "not two") tell us that what we see as reality is all an illusion: "Maya." A fiction. Our lives, our individual selves, the multitude of separate things we see around us -- all just ego-manufactured stories masking the Unity, the "ultimate indivisibility," that is the world's true nature.

Borges was writing something true when he described the infinite maze of possibilities in his story "The Garden of Forking Paths." Literary fiction holds a mirror up to the larger fiction of the world, and gives us a way to see past the details of our lives toward a larger context. That experience can be even richer when we consciously layer the "imaginary" over the "real," and that slippery juxtaposition presents us with the suddenly beautiful face of Mystery.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

This Self-Promotion Thing

My book hit the marketplace in late July and here it is November already! After what feels like much too long a delay, I have scheduled a public reading/booksigning event, graciously hosted by the Center for Photography at Woodstock (yes, that Woodstock, in New York state), Friday November 13, 6:00 pm.

CPW is a world-class, 32-year-old, nonprofit institution dedicated to supporting artists working in photography and related media. But wait a minute -- my book has nothing to do with photography. Why would they host a literary reading? Well, besides the fact that CPW is run by very nice people, it is also a prominent setting in my story "Signs," in which the elderly protagonist's small but important journey of self-discovery is furthered by his encounter with the images on the gallery walls -- entirely fictional photo exhibits, I might add. CPW Executive Director Ariel Shanberg even told me, "Hmm, I'll be interested to see what your ideas were for the photo shows in our galleries..." My new skill: imaginary curating! It was fun to write; now let's hope he likes it.

The point is, for you authors facing the promotion challenge, this is a way of stepping outside the predictable bookstore or coffee-bar venue for a reading/signing event. A real location mentioned in your book is a logical choice, a fun blurring of the fact/fiction boundaries, and its owners may welcome the added bit of exposure and cachet that an attachment to the literary world may give them.

Which is not to suggest that a writer should craftily fill their book with real-world settings they can then exploit for readings. Blecch.

Truth be told, I'm a little slow and reticent about this self-promotion thing. It could be said that for a self-published author, that's the kiss of death. So be it then... my raison d'etre is not the selling, but the writing. I want to get back to writing my next project as soon as possible, but ever since my book came out, all my (miniscule) free time has gone toward establishing a presence, getting reviews, posting on various networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, yikes!), blogging, etc.

I'm looking forward to this reading, because the contact with my potential readers that I like best is the flesh-and-blood kind. Shaking a real hand is much better than touching screen and keyboard to commune with a virtual mask.

So I feel myself gradually stepping away from constant online promotion, even as I'm just now doing my first booksigning. I'm grateful to Ariel and CPW, and (in advance) to the other venues where I'll appear from time to time in coming months. As my baby, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, totters out into the world with just a little support from me, I hope you'll give it a closer look. The book is about connections. Let's connect.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Let It Be

This is a re-post of something from a year ago on the Hudson Valley Writers site, but it still applies...

Saturday I finished transforming a jumbled mountain of firewood into rough rows and columns in my woodshed. This monotonous activity, besides kicking several muscle groups into sudden loud protest, made me think about writing. Of course, many things make me think about writing. Like, most of all, not writing.

As I stacked wood, I labored through motions both repetitive and unique, sometimes carefully choosing size, shape, and placement for structural integrity, other times just tossing whatever was available into the row. I had a sketchy vision of the end product: rows relatively balanced and uniform, columns standing tall without collapse or even wobble. I had to keep up a certain pace or never finish; no time for nit-picking. Every log was a word, a phrase, an idea – each with its own ragged edges, annoyingly imperfect, often stubbornly refusing to fit, but still the only thing at hand.

Eventually it was done and I could step back and see the whole thing…. Ouch. All that work, for this? This rough, ungraceful edifice, barely utilitarian, not beautiful at all? But it’s finished. The shed is full. No rewrites allowed on this one (cheering from the sore muscles), so… here’s the difficult part: I have to surrender my perfectionism.

I’m grateful that, in contrast to wood-stacking, my writing affords nearly endless revision. But still, every time, I face the same inner dialogue: this piece of work is not really what I wanted it to be, it didn’t quite capture some exquisite subtlety of mood, some ephemeral shadow of memory, some brief twinge of insight. But I’ve done all I can do. I have to just let it be what it is.

With that motion (figurative) of opening my hands (heart) to let go, as if freeing a dove to the sky, I make room for something new. Like on Saturday, when I stood and stared a long minute at my woodshed, breathed deep and exhaled slow, and allowed in the sweet taste of accomplishment and the warm fuzz of winter security – just like that, every day, I have to release my writing from silly fastidiousness so that it can simply go forth and live. For me, this is a challenge. Thank you, I accept.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire
“Let it be.” -- McCartney

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Gratitude for Reviews

It's been a whole month since I wrote here last, an indication of overload at the day job and on the home front. Maintaining a blog is a challenge for the non-loquacious (like me). And I've discovered that now that The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility is out in the world and beginning to toddle on its own two feet, my thoughts are moving on, getting all wrapped up in the next work-in-progress. That's a good thing, but I don't intend to abandon my firstborn... I'll continue a little promotional effort here and there to keep some momentum going. Meanwhile, the next book calls!

Speaking of momentum, these last few weeks have been gratifying as I've seen the results of my early submissions of review copies. Once my first small POD print run was in the works, after several proofs and final tweaking, I e-mailed review queries to two local print publications and three online review sites. One of the websites declined--I suspect literary short stories are not their cuppa tea--but the others accepted and I sent books as soon as they arrived. Then I began counting days and alternately fearing and desiring those imminently-arriving comments from objective strangers (yikes!) who were actually reading my book (wow!).

Now, it's the morning after opening nght, and I'm a happy author as I read the reviews! Here they are so far, in reverse chronological order (click to read each one in full):

In the October Chronogram Magazine, Anne Pyburn manages to capture the essence of my book in three paragraphs that are so eloquent I'm hard-pressed to choose the best blurb... how about "a feast of food for thought, a richly imagined reality that looks much like our own world if we could really see it."

Online at POD People, Cheryl Anne Gardner gives a really thoughtful, in-depth examination of the themes (and their alternates) that she sees at work in the stories and the book as a whole. I'm immensely grateful for this kind of close reading and generous analysis, made even better by the fact that hers is all volunteer labor. Again, so difficult to choose a few words from so many insightful comments; here's one: "...the collection really begged the question: Hope? Is it really genuine or is it something we invent as a way to justify our acceptance..."

At the website Self-Publishing Review, whose mission is to help bring self-published literature to a more respected position in the minds of readers and the industry, editor Henry Baum closes his review with this: "Overall, it’s a collection of very strong writing - thoughtful, full of vivid imagery, sorrowful at times, but never self-pitying. The Lost Symbol it is not, but it’s subtle and moving in a way that Dan Brown dreams of being." (Sorry, Dan!)

The Fearless Reviews website takes just two paragraphs to give a strong impression of the content and themes in my stories, and sums it up with this: "This is a beautifully written, thoughtful collection well worth reading."

In my local paper, the Woodstock Times (scroll down to Storytellers), I was flattered to be reviewed along with one of my writing heroes, James Lasdun. Reviewer Paul Smart says "...the use of a fractured story structure, where characters, actions and similar reactions come together over time, lend the overall work the tragic air of great epics, with people doing all they can to escape fate's plans for them; and yet also the bittersweet quality we recognize in the best comedies, where folks keep pressing on, no matter what pushes them back."

As more and more copies get into the hands of readers, I'm finding that I deeply appreciate knowing that anyone is investing their precious hours to explore the worlds I worked for years to get onto those pages. It's humbling and pleasurable at the same time. Thanks for reading!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Intangible Vectors of Influence (a story excerpt)

Here's the first section from one of my stories, "Emergency: Three Romances." Like several of the others, it's a story made up of smaller stories, disparate fragments of strangers' lives connected, and changed in small ways, by a thin thread of circumstance. Or because we're all part of one big thing....

Intangible Vectors of Influence

The young cop says, “Sorry ma’am, you’ll have to wait.” In the strobing red-blue glare he looks like a teenager. Melissa wonders if Tony had looked so young when he started, all those years ago. Ever since Steph blurted her confession an hour earlier, Melissa has been thinking of Tony, obsessively thinking of Tony, her ex-cop waiting at home for her return.

The night is blustery and cold; snow will be coming soon. Melissa just wants to get in her little Honda and go home. But there’s some sort of emergency in the brownstone facing her parking space (a lucky find, she had thought at the time), and her car is surrounded—in fact the entire one-way street is blocked—by an ambulance, two police cruisers, and an unmarked SUV topped with a detachable flashing light. The sirens still seem to be echoing from a minute earlier and the spit-crackle of radios cuts through the low roar of idling engines. The air smells toxic. Two stone-faced troopers watch the cars and the door. A few gawkers stand around the perimeter waiting for action, swiveling their heads up toward the lighted third-floor windows and back again, but nothing seems to be happening.

Melissa doesn’t want to know. She doesn’t want to wait, to see someone’s misfortune, to learn any tragic truths, and she doesn’t want to go back to her sister Steph’s apartment. She feels lost and bubbling over with rage. Downtown Jersey City is like a foreign country to her—a dim resemblance to Manhattan, but darker, stranger. She wants to stamp her foot and insist that these uniforms get out of her way, let me go home goddammit, but she knows that would be a mistake. Shivering, she heads for the coffee shop that she spotted earlier near the PATH station. She imagines that Stephanie must have taken this same route and was already out of the train on the other side of the Hudson, strolling the happy bustling streets of the Village.

Melissa feels out of sorts partly because she is out of her world, here in the city instead of home in the mountains. At home she doesn’t have to worry about her baby sister’s drunken escapades, at least not in such an immediate way, and she has Tony to laugh with. But even solid Tony seems to waver like a mirage just now, because he is home doing who knows what, and with whom? She knows this fear is all based on Steph’s admission—or baldfaced lie—an hour ago that, on her last visit upstate, while Melissa was finishing the afternoon at the shop, she had tried to seduce Tony.

Her voice had been pitched with that air of pretense that had annoyed Melissa so often. “And I rubbed up against him and breathed in his ear like this.…” Steph was on her feet, moving and posing in front of Melissa as if on stage. Her eyes fluttered shut, her hands and hips seemed to contact an invisible body in the air, her voice fell to a sultry whisper. “Mmm, you smell so good….”

Melissa pasted a smile on her face to go along with what surely must be a joke. “Mm-hm, and what happened next?”

Steph said, “Wouldn’t you like to know?” and she made a bye-bye motion with her fingers, laughing with her head thrown back as she closed the bathroom door.

Melissa had been struck dumb, groping to make sense of the whole scene. Now, as she walks, she wonders: why hadn’t Tony mentioned it—because it wasn’t true, or because it was true and he wanted to pursue it?

She imagines asking Tony that question. She sees his eyes glance down and away as he says, “You know your sister’s a total wack job. She’s lying, as usual. So whaddya want for dinner?”

Then immediately she sees the scene repeat, but this time he looks directly into her eyes and smiles. “You know your sister’s a total wack job. I couldn’t believe the, y’know, seductress act she put on. Like high school drama club. Made me laugh.” Then he comes to Melissa and puts his arms around her. “Look, baby, she doesn’t do it for me, not a bit. She’s a skinny neurotic drunk without an ounce of sexiness in her whole stringy little body.” He presses his smooth, good-smelling cheek against hers. “Besides, you’re the only one for me; I’m not looking anywhere else.”

With that image, Melissa’s dark mood lifts a bit, but she still doesn’t know what to believe.

Now she figures she may as well tank up on caffeine so she can stay awake on the drive home. She shifts her overnight bag from right shoulder to left as she walks. Her plan had been to go out dancing with Steph, proving that clean and sober fun is actually possible, and then have a sisterly sleepover full of heartfelt confessions. But the plan has “gone down the crapper,” as Tony would say. Stephanie, after her announcement of betrayal—while Melissa was in the shower for a moment of stunned solitude before soldiering on—had simply disappeared.

For Melissa, the studious older sister who had always valued predictability and had too often felt forced to stand in for emotionally absent parents, Stephanie had always been a handful, really just too much. Tearful trauma over every grade-school slight… a junior-high shoplifting binge… cocaine in college… the list was endless. Melissa knows, and grieves for, Steph’s secret scars, both visible and not: the gash on her thigh from an impulsive quarry dive; the gash on her heart from losing again, after so much soulful rehearsal and a “brilliant” audition, the role of Blanche in the latest summer revival of Streetcar. And all those men, a parade come and gone, until that September morning she stood on the boardwalk at Exchange Place with a paper cup of coffee in her hand and watched the towers come down, with her new beau in there somewhere, never to return. Since that day, Stephanie’s fun-loving side had risen like a despot, a clown tyrant who ruled with deadly desperation, grinning and dancing all the while.

Steph’s dysfunctions are so appallingly transparent. Still, Melissa cannot let go of an image of herself, a mud-bound stone, looking up at Stephanie, a pirouetting feather.

Toweling her hair after her shower, Melissa had called out, had looked through the entire tiny apartment, and then had sat numbly waiting until it became clear that Steph had, without a word, just left her behind. Ditched her. That’s when the rage began.

“I love you, Mel,” Steph says every time they speak. But the time had come to cut Stephanie off. Say goodbye. Disown her. As she closed the door of Steph’s building behind her, Melissa was ranting so loudly inside that she was surprised nobody on the street could hear. She was done with the little bitch forever. And good riddance.

Then she encountered the young cop, the ambulance, the emergency. She was unable to slam her car door and screech away. Now, as she strides down the shadowy street hugging herself, her anger does what her anger always does: transforms itself. Melts into guilt. Surely she could have felt more charity toward her sister. Surely she could forgive, forgive a hurting overgrown child. Be kind to a charming, passionate girl. Surely all this was Melissa’s own fault, she was such a loser. Such a loser that Tony would probably rather have Stephanie.

Melissa is on a campaign against her jealousy. Or whatever this feeling is, this burden, this curse. It’s her biggest focus right now, the point of all her efforts at self-improvement. In the past, with any tremor in the ground under the latest romantic edifice she had constructed, her first instinct was toward despair, toward the sure knowledge that everyone else is more attractive, more lovable than she is, and that she’ll end up without something, something indefinable but crucial. She’ll end up without... whatever it is that she needs. A deep, wild fear would rise up in her throat, and she would be obsessed with thoughts of the interloper, whoever she, or it, might be. Over the last five years, Melissa’s therapy group and meditation practice have helped immensely, but now her sister’s latest antics have sent her spiraling down into that familiar tangled darkness.

And to make it worse, her daydreams have recently turned toward marriage: an embarrassingly conventional vision of settling in with Tony, getting old with him. He hasn’t proposed. Is she crazy, blind to the truth?

As she pushes through the door into the bright noisy warmth of the Grove Diner, it seems unfortunately fitting that she hears her own name on the classic-rock radio piped into the place. “But back home he’ll always run... to sweet Melissa....” The old Allman Brothers’ song was a favorite of her ex, Robert. He would sing it to her often, too often, usually because he was trying to make up for hurting her somehow.

Robert, a sculptor, had persuaded her with much cajoling to quit her jewelry-store job and accompany him, to leave Manhattan and move to a remote house in the Catskills. For more “creative space,” he said. At first resentful of the new landscape, Melissa had experienced her resistance sweetly melting as she discovered that she loved the woolly green views, the quiet winding roads, and the unpretentious people that filled her new life in the small mountain town near their home. Then, before a year was out, Robert flip-flopped without warning and fled back to the city. The timing was perfect; the opportunity had just arisen for Melissa to take over the antique shop where she had been working, so she said goodbye to Robert and city life, and stayed on, for good or ill.

A year later, Tony arrived, shaggy and unemployed but sharing her desire for an upward trajectory, and they had trekked together so well, for so long. And now he was established in his handyman business, serving the second-home owners from the city. They were living together, and the future had seemed so simple and good. Why must things always grow more and more complex?

Depositing her bag on the seat opposite, she slides into a booth next to a long window, her back to the door. She remembers yesterday at home, how she had whined that she didn’t really want to take this trip down to the city to fruitlessly “intervene” once again in Stephanie’s drunkenness, and Tony had told her, “You should go, do what you can. After all, who knows what intangible vectors of influence are at work?” He spoke like that more and more often these days.

Melissa’s eyes tear up. She can’t help it; she’s in love with him. This won’t do. She wipes the tears away and straightens her shoulders. She orders coffee.

Waiting, she considers the pleasures of being self-sufficient and alone, strong without a man. The feeling is good. She imagines getting in her car, tonight, as soon as they will let her, jumping on the New Jersey Turnpike, and driving south. All the way south, to the end, where she could stare out at empty ocean. Starting a new life there, where she could read daily the marker at the corner of South and Whitehead in Key West: Southernmost Point, Continental US. She could join the freaks of the Conch Republic, rent a musty little bungalow with windows shaded by palm fronds, make funky jewelry, sell it to tourists every night at the Mallory Square Sunset celebration at the edge of the glittering Gulf.

Her tropical reverie is interrupted by the clink of a saucer and full steaming cup appearing on the table in front of her. Reaching for the little metal pitcher of milk, she glances out the window to the sidewalk, and there, walking with eyes downcast, is Stephanie. As if the glance were audible, Steph looks up just then, lifts her face into the light, and it seems to Melissa that a mask has dropped away, revealing a misery too wild and deep for words. Their eyes connect, and Steph moves directly to the window, her face folding into the teary red clench that Melissa has known for so, so long. Her mouth shapes, “I love you, Mel.”

Without warning, Melissa is filled by a sensation in her chest of great heavy doors swinging open, and she knows that her plans for tonight are going to change once again. Midnight is gone, another day has begun, lives change inexplicably every instant.

Then, for one more long moment that seems to lean invisibly toward morning, the sisters stare at each other, gazing without thought, without past or future, from opposite sides of the cold, clear glass.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What? No murders?!

In the thirteen stories that make up The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility there are no murders. Nor are there any pimps, hookers, gangsters, junkies, pedophiles, or terrorists. There are no movie stars, rock stars, or fashion models. There are no aliens or monsters, no witches or wizards. There is not a single evil conspiracy.

Yet I would like people to buy the book. And read it. Am I crazy?

Some folks would say so. They might say, "So what could possibly be in it then?" They might say, "People need entertainment; ya gotta give 'em a thrill." They might say, "The current marketplace demands blah blah blah..."

I personally don't know any murderers, pimps, hookers, gangsters, movie stars, rock stars (ok, maybe a couple...), terrorists, models, aliens, monsters, witches, or wizards. I've known a few junkies in times gone by, and about pedophiles... well, I don't know. All those characters occupy their very solid niches in our culture, and their stories can make good entertainment, even high art. In fact, a survey of the market may give the impression that one (or several) of them is absolutely mandatory for a compelling story. But that would be a false impression. The real requirements are heart, truth, and writing craft. Quiet stuff. In fact, call me perverse, but when I see the deluge of loud cover art in most bookstores, proclaiming the value of violence and glitz, my urge is to run the other direction. And take my writing there too.

Oops, lost dollars. Oh well. As Popeye said, "I yam what I yam!"

Wick Poetry Prize winner Djelloul Marbrook gives me some good support with this back cover blurb:
"Subtlety ought to be on an endangered literary species list, but Brent Robison brilliantly makes the case for its essentiality in this exquisite collection of webbed stories. These stories argue that everything is a facet of the same jewel and we touch each other’s lives in unfathomable ways. To read them is to heighten one’s bond with strangers."

So... what is here in these stories is ordinary people -- people like you and me, fully engaged in lives packed with struggles of various kinds, but almost never with evil, explosions, glamor, or gore.

Thankfully, murder touches very few of our lives; in this book, there is one attempted but unsuccessful, and the mass murders of 9-11 and Iraq loom just offstage.

And of other deaths, there is no shortage. There is love and its attendant strife. There is addiction. There are families broken and whole. There are urban streets, country roads, jazz, sex, storms, car crashes, office doldrums, desert skies, artists, Mormons, hospital rooms, petty crime, storms, Navajos, popcorn, and emptiness. There are also ideas.

Maybe my next book will have ideas too, plus a murder. We'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

How is Unity expressed in story?

I love the unanswerable questions. And I love to learn as much as my subgenius mind can handle about everything we humans have so far come to know in our pursuit of answers to the unanswerable. Parallel passions--science and metaphysics--gradually led me to glimpse a perfect interweaving of current knowledge and ancient wisdom. Quantum physics intertwined with Advaita Vedanta. Spacetime as a metaphor for Oneness. Superstrings pointing to Nonduality.

Meanwhile, I labored away at writing stories. Imaginary characters with lives and hearts and pains all their own kept jumping up and asking to be acknowledged. Inspired by literary realism, postmodern and classic, lush or minimalist, I worked at exploring psycho-spiritual states and getting something both meaningful and beautiful onto the page. Then out of all that jumble rose the challenge that got my blood pumping at a whole new rate....

If everything is One, how is that expressed in story?

Well, it's been done, with various degrees of success, in all kinds of ways:
--exegesis of various cultural mythologies
--allegory or parable with a "moral"
--stories from the lives of famous gurus or holy men
--the conundrums of time travel (see my friend's book The High Priest of Prickly Bog)
--fanciful alternate realities like those of Italo Calvino
--narrative thought experiments ala Jorge Luis Borges
--straight science fiction: on other planets, things behave differently
--variations on the sword and sorcery genre
--human encounters with angels or extraterrestrials
--magical realism

Trouble is, none of these appealed to me. Or rather, they were not what I was doing as a writer. I wanted to write literary short stories, about us, ordinary people, our everyday tragedies and existential crises, the mundane epiphanies that move us all incrementally forward. Real life.

It was my invented characters themselves who offered me the key. Of their own accord they had began lurking on the edges of each other's stories. But I wasn't sure what that meant. Then one day as I surveyed the whole array of stories and fragments, a complex web of faint shimmering lines seemed to materialize before my inner eye. These people, like all of us, were connected by invisible threads, coincidences, ephemeral glancing touches, by which subtle influence was being exerted, life paths changed in seemingly tiny, but possibly powerful, ways. We were like cells in one giant body, all going about our business transporting enzymes from one place to another and effecting change on other cells, but with rarely a glimmer of awareness of our own impact.

To suggest this newfound truth seemed to me the best way I could express Unity. Still, just as in this thing we call "reality," the needs, hopes, dreams, heartaches, addictions, and loves of daily life are the foreground. To see the background is another level of perception altogether.

I'm entirely a beginner on the road toward Unitive Consciousness. But that vision of all human beings interconnected by a vast intangible network of influence, invisible energy lines weaving us together, became the engine driving the finishing, assembling, and publishing of my story collection.

So, does it work? Does it matter? Does The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility say anything useful? Can this odd combination of literary realism and esoteric philosophy create its own public? Or is it all a big illusion (delusion) in my mind? I really don't know. I hope you'll read it and tell me what you think.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Publishing = Creating a Public

My journey toward publication of The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility has been fraught with doubt. I've kept soldiering on anyway. But this past week I felt incredibly empowered by a new way to look at publishing. Here I quote writer/editor Matthew Stadler:
"In English, publication includes the word ‘public’…publication is the creation of a public. Publication is a political strategy. It is not an attempt to make beautiful objects. It is not an attempt to make an accurate record that can be stored and archived… There is no pre-existing public. The public that we hear about, which we think about often to our own discouragement, is itself a fiction created by political actors to lend moral authority to their choices. I am interested in publication because I want to create a public. I live in a culture, in a country, that uses the fiction of a mainstream public in many ways that I find discouraging, negative, and disempowering but I don’t believe the notion of and the experience of a public needs to be that way… It is imperative that we publish not only as a means to counter the influence of a hegemonic public, but also to reclaim the space in which we imagine ourselves and our collectivity. We feel lonely and powerless when we accept the myth of ‘the mainstream public.’ When we accept that fiction we relinquish our ability to form our own collectivities and draw hope from them.”

In the loud, clamoring marketplace, I usually feel lost and out of place. I don't write potboilers with zinger tag lines, so it's easy to feel invisible. But I've clung to an intuition that there is an audience for my work: a few people will love it, and then a few more, and a few more. Stadler's viewpoint gives some muscle to that hunch. I love the idea that I'm taking political action by writing what feels true for me ("market" be damned), then joining the self-publishing revolution to bring it to the world. How freeing to let go of that vast, oppressive cloud of "the mainstream public"! Each of us who creates is building not only a piece of work, but a network of invisible connections among those who admire that work: a new public, a new family, a new community. Large or small is of less importance than the nature of the connections. It is through such bonds that energetic shifts take place and worlds change, both inner and outer.

For bringing Stadler's ideas (and the quote above) to my awareness, I give a big Thank You to Shannon Yarborough and his essay "Why Do We Publish?" in The LL Book Review.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Brand New Skin

Feelin' great--my book gets ever closer to entering the world! Here's the cover, the skin of the baby... featuring string/pencil/wax drawings by Wendy Drolma, with my design. The interior includes another dozen of Wendy's drawings scattered among the thirteen stories.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Writing and the Mask

Here is an essay that I revised a bit from my introduction to an anthology a few years ago. It gives a taste of my thoughts about the art of writing fiction....

Writing and the Mask

I am wearing a mask. Right now, as I write this. It is not a physical thing covering my face; rather, it is in the "I" that begins this paragraph. Again, now: I write "I" followed by a verb, and you the reader perceive me, a writer, telling you his own "truth." But no matter what I write, "I" is a lie. And no matter what I write, "I" is also the truth.

This conundrum is explored in an anthology, The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, that I co-edited along with professional maskmaker Wendy Drolma (Klein). The book explores the meaning of the mask through poetry, art, "fiction" and "non-fiction" (I put those words in quotes because, in the end, their definitions are entirely elusive). What you are reading here is a revised version of the book's introduction.

If I were writing here in a mode called "fiction," you would gladly accept the mask and maybe even think, "how creative." In the anthology, when Robert Louis Stevenson wears the face of his invention Dr. Jekyll and says, "I was born in the year 18-- to a large fortune...," we enter into a kind of theater and suspend our disbelief. Our pleasure is in believing the obvious lie. When Barry Yourgrau starts the final story, "I come into the kitchen...," we're not so sure that this is an invented persona speaking, but we go along happily as his darkish whimsy unfolds. Mark Sherman's "I" may make us squirm a bit because, while his story has the trappings of fiction, the narrator, we think, just might be Mr. Sherman himself, pretending otherwise. The mask grows thinner.

But there are "non-fiction" works in the volume as well. For instance, this introduction. Since it is not fiction, it must be true, right? The mask of "I" is not acknowledged; it is a sly disguise that looks similar enough to my real face (is there such a thing?) that you don't suspect I wear a mask at all. In the anthology, Michael Perkins, Sparrow, and Gabriel Q all write an "I" that also makes no suggestion of a mask. Does that mean their works are "true"?

Samuel Avital, Sophie Rogers-Gessert, Vincent Lloyd, and George Ulrich don't need an "I" at all; in their essays, they wear the masks of authority, of objectivity, of educated reason. But simply to set pen to paper, one must adopt the persona of "writer." Carl Jung said, "The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual."

I write fiction. I believe in the power of imagination, and I have often "hired" someone not myself -- a persona -- to narrate my stories. When Oscar Wilde said, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth," he was right: behind that mask, my conscious agendas, my censors, my carefully constructed "self," all disappear, and without "me" in control, I tell the truth. The real truth. It slips in through the unguarded back door. It can't be otherwise, because I am I.

Except, of course, for the Buddhist truth that "I" is just an illusion anyway. As Alan Watts said, "I" is just the Universe "eyeing." Each of us is both the center and not the center: double in nature. Dr. Jekyll can't face himself as he writes about Hyde: "He, I say -- I cannot say, I." He denies his own double nature even as he admits it. In a similar self-deconstruction, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man turns his unhappy being into apparent nothingness and then, hiding in a costumier's shop, must put on a mask and false whiskers to make himself again perceptible in the world. The masked man always dons another mask, and so it goes.

Pablo Picasso said: "Art is a lie that tells the truth." The anthology The Other Face, our little work of art, is full of masks, but it is also full of truth. I hope readers approach it with an open heart, and receive wisdom. And as for whether these warm wishes come from "me" or from some persona in my employ, I feel as Jorge Luis Borges does, when he closes the story "Borges and I"...
"I do not know which of us has written this page."


The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, published by Bliss Plot Press, is available from Wendy Drolma Masks.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A Story Excerpt

Here are the first three pages of a 25-page story from The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility. It originally appeared in the literary journal Silent Voices, whose editors nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.

A Confession of Love and Emptiness

Living half a century is no great accomplishment; I’ve done it and more. Living through tomorrow may be something much bigger. Tomorrow a group of people, every one of them younger than I, will take a great saw and rip through my sternum, and insert steel claws, and crank my rib cage open, and spread me like a lobster.

I don’t believe in priests, so I’ll make my confession directly to God, who hides in the pure white expanse of this blank page.

If I live, I will live a new way. I am ready to say this not merely because of the grim surprise with which I realize daily that I am precisely what I thought I’d never be, a middle-aged man, a man growing old whose body is failing, who may die soon. And not merely because deathbed repentance is attractive and convenient, even to someone like me who has always rejected such pathetic whimpers of fear, but because today I received a message of redemption. In the face of a little girl, I saw forgiveness.

The story is easy to remember, but not to tell. It’s about love and emptiness.

The year I turned forty, I begged… or, rather, demanded, rudely, that a Voice speak to me, that He stop hiding in spiteful silence behind that grand impenetrable drapery of blackness above my head.

I was standing at the side of a hospital bed where my wife lay dying of ovarian cancer. The steel rail was cold in my fists. The machinery hummed, whooshed, beeped. Now and then her brow folded up like a fist, but her eyes stayed closed. She was shriveled, unrecognizable. All I could think of was the hypnotic glitter of the Milky Way and how desperately, bitterly, I wanted to understand Eternal Space. I behaved like a thoughtless imbecile. I shouted up at Him, at God, at the ceiling.

An angry nurse blew in like a gale gusting through white curtains, hissing, threatening to have me removed, forcibly if necessary. Later, in one final rush of pain, my wife died. I never received my revelation.

For over fifteen years since, I’ve slept on my side of the bed, with an empty space beside me. I believe that’s what was meant to be. My reward. God is just.

The trouble is, people disappear all the time. They just vanish—poof, gone. This is not startling news; everybody knows it. And if you want the return of the disappeared, then that’s in the Miracle department. I used to believe it was utterly impossible, back in the years before I met Rico, that sweet, crazy old crooner. But these days, I’m thinking that maybe the gone can come back. In their own way, unobtrusively, they return. If you’re watching.

In my life, there were Billy Brock, and my mother, and of course Alice, who left those gaping vacancies. But it started with my uncle, my mother’s younger brother, who lived with us, who rode me on his back like a horse so that my clearest memory of him is the thick shiny tangle of the back of his head, wet ropes the color of coffee beans, and the sweet scent, like a fruity wine, of Wildroot hair tonic.

Then, before I was eight, he was gone. He came home alone one day, home too early from his job with my father, wearing a fat white bandage around his right hand. His face is dim in my memory, but I know his skin was pale, a white forehead spiked by a dark lock hanging down. He was thin, young, couldn’t have been more than twenty‑five, I realize now. That day, he came in tense, pacing, silent. He scared me. I escaped to the back yard and while I sat under our willow, reading, their voices, his and hers, my mother’s, shouted in distant echoes from inside the solid bricks of our house, and I tried not to listen, and I remember not a word. As I tried to focus on the page, a page full of diagrams of rockets, I heard the front door slam. That was my Uncle Davy leaving. I never saw him again.

Somehow I knew even then that that was the beginning of the end of our family.

My name is Jonson Burgess. Not the old standard John, but Jonson, after Ben. My mother, in love with her own sense of irony, wanted to make a statement about negative capability, perhaps her own, perhaps my father’s, perhaps mine, and so I was named for Britain’s most admired playwright of the seventeenth century, who towered and gloated over, who praised and patronized, his failing friend Shakespeare, but who today is lost in the Master’s shadow, all but forgotten, merely a minor player. And in his dim beginnings, before all his avid self‑promotion, Ben Jonson was a bricklayer, like my father. Maybe she knew my father would rise above sweaty labor to his own higher plane of banality, too. She would chuckle low in her throat; she thought such contrivances were funny, like a jazzman tossing a riff from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into his solo, a sort of inside joke, her personal comic subversion in a humorless, dark universe.

When I was six, my uncle’s secret name for me was “Muscles,” since he said, with a name like Jonson, some might think that my father’s name was Jon, but no, it was Sam, and Samson would hardly do now, would it? But I could be like Samson someday, he said, with a wild wicked girlfriend, and biceps, and hair, and a fatal flaw. I didn’t know what he meant by all that, but I did know about Samson, since my father read me Bible stories every other night at bedtime. My father and mother had an arrangement, a sort of alternating current that powered all my perceptions then. Then and, I suppose, now. On my mother’s nights, she read to me stories of her choice, and I suffered through them, often yawning or dreaming but sometimes enthralled, adrift, sunken in a syrup of words, in her soft deep voice, Dostoevsky and Kafka, and now and then Dickens, for a bright note.

Odd how just now I felt a sudden longing, a deep twinge like the flex of a muscle, somewhere near my heart, a longing for her to be here at the side of my bed, reading to me, reading anything, I don’t care, caressing soft syllables with that voice like whiskey on velvet, filling with its deep folds this sterile hard room where, now, without her, every sound, even a rustle, a whisper, clangs and echoes like a bloody bullet dropped in a surgeon’s pan.

And the rustles, the whispers I hear, are my heart wheezing to force my blood through an ever narrowing space, a gate where some freak twist of DNA raised a lump that year by year has gathered coats of calcium, layered like geologic sediments recording the history of my heart, my life. A congenital aortic stenosis, thank you Mother, thank you Father, thank you God.

Now I know, so I can say, my sin is this: I have lived a life obsessed by emptiness. On a quest for absolute vacancy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Artist, Diagnose Thyself

The following is a re-post of my blog entry from January on the Hudson Valley Writers networking site:

I just re-read an article that I had decided on my first reading was very important for my writing, then promptly forgot about. "Ready-made rebellion: The empty tropes of transgressive fiction," by Jonathan Dee, appeared in Harper's in April 2005 and can be found here:

Be forewarned: if you're a fan of Neil Labute, A.M. Homes, Will Self, Chuck Palahniuk, or Dennis Cooper, they don't go unscathed here (especially LaBute). But fanhood should always be open to challenge anyway, don't you think?

Dee opens with these statements: "Good fiction has never been about moral instruction; it would be much easier to write if it were. Its more imposing task is to do justice to the inexhaustible complexity of human motivation." He goes on to say that we look to writers to tell us why people act the way they act. The challenge in that statement, of course, is that the writer must have some self-understanding in order to illuminate his characters. So the journey toward self-awareness, perhaps the most important journey any of us makes, is crucial not only for life, but for fiction. This became most clear to me when I was in a therapy group led by the late Mark Abramson, whose firm, even cantankerous insistence upon clarity and honesty of thought and expression was not only an invaluable and loving aid in emotional growth, but became a rigorous training ground for my writing as well.

But I'm often easily confused by what goes on in the marketplace; new work getting praised as hip and edgy might make me question what I'm doing. Or, worse yet, its influences might creep into my work past my internal literary gatekeeper, who sometimes sleeps.

I'm grateful to Dee for helping make clear my muddy instincts when he writes, "Books that depend for their sense of opposition on the straw man of a presupposed bourgeois mentality outside the fiction itself--on shock value, in other words--are working in conditions of profound safety disguised as risk. The characters suffer no repercussions (nor do the writers, for that matter, regardless of outlaw posturing), but the atmosphere is one of self-conscious edginess and aesthetic daring."

I don't want to be that type of writer. I'm not entirely confident that I haven't slipped into some of the methods he decries, even in stories now "finished" and on the market. But I am hereby re-dedicating myself to being vigilant against shallow posing, to exploring my characters from the inside rather than judging them from outside while pretending objectivity. And to continuing my own inner exploration, because, whether I'm writing or not, that's what I need. I believe in Dee's final declaration: "Artist, diagnose thyself."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Indra's Net = Internet ?

This is the epigraph I've placed on page one of The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel at the net’s every node, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite.

---The Avatamsaka Sutra
Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra
Francis H. Cook
(drawing by Wendy Drolma)

When the authors of the Vedic texts first described Indra's Net over 2,500 years ago, it almost seems they were describing the mind-numbingly myriad nodes and threads of today's Internet. Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, the whole social networking complex is a clumsy, rough-edged facsimile of the infinite sparkling elegance of the net of Indra. Were the ancients spookily prescient? Well, anything's possible. I imagine they were sadhus, exploring the vast inner deep, and giving us a metaphor for what they encountered there: the indescribable unity and inter-penetration of all things.

In other words, they were describing the same truths about humans and the universe that govern us today, and that we are currently manifesting through technology. Some days as I surf Facebook, I've been surprised by a nudge of excitement to be part of the physical manifestation of a long-hidden esoteric principle, our blind striving for unity. We have no choice but to manifest this at this time in history because we are who we are. On one level, we are programmed by evolution to seek connection with other humans: a cellular impulse tells us we’re safer in groups than alone. On another level, quantum physics has shown that we and everything else we see are all momentary flickers in one vast energy field. We are intimately connected because we are all One.

But still, everyday life happens. We must behave as if the illusion is real. Enmeshed in the dazzling net of Indra, we still must do the laundry. And as we do it, invisible lines of energy radiating like the reflections of jewels from total strangers, exert subtle influence on our every decision, turning our paths in new directions. Then we in turn unknowingly alter the lives of others, and the reflections multiply, ripples spreading ever outward in all directions.

I hope my book of stories gives a fleeting glimpse of not only the lives of others like me and you, but also of the sparkling web that weaves us all together.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To self-publish or not to self-publish?

Do, don't, do, don't. For a year I've been afflicted with severe indecision: chase down a small press who'll publish my (clearly non-commercial) collection of stories, or join the Do-It-Yourself revolution and get my book out to the public all on my own. I respect artists like my wife who take their work to the marketplace as independent creator/entrepeneurs. But at the same time, I admit my ego-based (sometimes revoltingly desperate) desire to be validated by an editorial gatekeeper of even the smallest stature.

Besides being a writer, I'm also a tiny DIY publisher of, among other things, a regional literary journal ( So I know that fine literary quality is certainly to be found outside the gates of the publishing establishment, even when that establishment is defined liberally. And I know how to build a book, get it printed, even get it into the marketplace.

But still, I've been resistant to joining the ranks of self-publishers. I had hoped it would be very clear that someone other than myself thinks my work is good. We all need a little respect, right?

But "good" does not mean "commercial" and publishers have bills to pay, a bigger problem now than ever. Besides, I'm just too impatient to persevere, plodding along at the snail's-pace submission/rejection game.

And so it goes: I decide to self-publish, then I flip-flop, and flip-flop again.

The submission history of my story collection goes like this:
1. Four contests... no awards
2. A publishing contract offer from a small press who, when I suggested minimal adjustments to their terrible contract, withdrew their offer, no discussion.
3. Interest from a respectable small press, but I decided not to pursue it further because they've gone to Print-On-Demand only, which I felt I could do just as well by myself.
4. Query to an agent referred by a friend... politely declined.
5. Months wasted when one small but reputable press cashed my reading fee check, then lost my submission. No answers to several inquiries... but eventually they refunded the money.
6. Queries to five small publishers... three declined, one no answer despite follow-ups, one response still pending... but since eight months have now passed without an answer to my query, I just sent them a note withdrawing it.

So... fnally... the decision is made. I have begun the process to self-publish my collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility. I've decided that a baker's dozen submissions is enough; if 13 wasn't my lucky number, then I'm taking luck into my own hands. The final nudge came from this simple but very helpful website:, whose About page says, "The aim of this site is to legitimize self-publishing – not just as a fallback plan, but as an avenue that’s increasingly necessary and useful in a competitive publishing industry. If the site has a manifesto it is to improve the culture around self-publishing."

So along with bearing the burden and reaping the rewards of total independence, I'm helping lay a foundation for a radically different future in the world of publishing. Viva la revolution!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth connection

In honor of Earth Day, here's a short selection that says something about our cellular memories of a closer connection to the body of our Mother. This is an excerpt from my story "A Partial Catalog of Harold's Major and Minor Epiphanies," originally published in Chronogram magazine. Its protagonist is a recurring character in the linked stories of my collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility.


Harold sits in his cubicle, typing. He is documenting the functionality of Release 2.3.1 of the Transaction Log Utility. A month ago, when he was still Manager of Training and Documentation, his afternoon would have felt infinitely more vital.

The soft gray walls muffle the keystrokes of the programmers and analysts in their cubicles on all sides of him. There is a low susurrus under everything, the processed air circulating endlessly. The windows on the far wall cannot be opened.

Harold’s eyes are locked on the screen as black letters string out against white, under blue and gray bars. Earlier, they grouped sensibly into words and sentences, but now the digital characters have regressed into absurd hieroglyphics as his fingers continue to click in random repetitions of featureless sound on the beige keys. The string of senseless symbols just keeps on rolling out, rolling out. His eyes glaze. His fingers slow. His head nods.

His eyes pop open, his fingers pick up again, another string of gibberish, then a fading, a letting go.…

Stars trail in slow motion across a vast night sky. Giant gargoyle silhouettes of gnarled stone wheel across the diamond field of stars. An owl hoots nearby, invisible. Coyotes yip on a distant ridge, the cries of aliens heralding the crescent moon just creeping over the ragged horizon. Sand grits against his skin, the flesh of his cheek. He lies on the ground, sweating, heart pounding like a fist. He knows that he has just been dancing, bare feet in the dirt, whirling madly to a savage drum, naked and shouting under the glittering stars, until, exhausted, he has fallen to the earth.

Harold snaps open his eyes. His fingers twitch. On the screen in front of him, centered in the monochrome field of lines and squiggles, is a gray rectangle containing words that slowly, dimly enter his conscious understanding.

Error. No help is available here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

How do you know it's finished?

Too bad you can't just stick a fork in and know... know that your book, story, essay, poem, is done. I once read that when Jackson Pollock was asked, "How do you know when you're finished with a painting?" he replied, "How do you know when you're finished making love?"

Well... I wish it was that easy, Jackson.

Hmm, but maybe he is on to something....

I just finished my story collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, for the third time. First time around, it was a rather skimpy ten stories long, but I decided it contained everything I could give it. No sooner had I sent it out to several contests than I begin to hear whispers.... A couple of characters in the book wanted me to know that their tales weren't fully told yet, plus a couple of fragments crawled up out of my notes and made strong claims for a position in the book. Meanwhile, I had started on a novel that had been brewing in my brain for years. But the characters from Indivisibility wouldn't leave me alone. So while I waited (and waited and waited) for replies from publishers, I put the novel away and worked on two new stories.

No letter of acceptance arrived, so I added the new pieces to the manuscript, sure this time that a twelve-story collection was just right. Sending it out again, to publishers as well as to two author friends from whom I begged cover blurbs, I felt for several months that the collection was... well, it was as complete as I could make it. My priorities shifted again and I began work on another project, a novel-in-stories, that would be built on a couple of older pieces that didn't fit Indivisibility.

But then it began again, the haunting, the whispering. Characters from Indivisibility and others from my notes were telling me that they needed attention, their stories needed voice. And they were showing me the intangible lines of energy connecting them with each other, and suddenly I felt certain: I knew one more story really had to go in the book. Months passed with the glacial pace that is normal in the literary world, and no publishing contract was signed, so I finished the new story and added it to the manuscript. Thirteen, a baker's dozen, perfect.

So that's where I am now. Done. But how can I be confident that it won't happen again, those little voices pleading to be included? Addition, subtraction, revision, tinkering of every sort, can go on forever. This is not an easy question to answer. Do I have an unconscious desire to run away from success, to undermine my dreams, so I'll simply never finish? Well, if it's unconscious, my answer must be no, right? But I say it with surety: No. So am I finished this time? Yes. Evidence says I can't be sure, yet I feel sure. And therein lies the only answer to the question of how we know we're finished. Our feelings tell us. Call it intuition, call it vibration... it's something outside the realm of reason, so it's difficult for some of us to perceive, much less acknowledge.

"Feelings" had told me that I was finished before, but this time there is a distinct difference, a palpable sense of well-roundedness, like a thrown and fired pot in my hands. With practice, I've learned to pay closer attention to my inner cues; I've reached a deeper level of awareness of the universe inside. This feeling is different, and I trust it.

Oh, and there's one more bit of proof: my creative interest has moved on. My desire for that particular book, which once was focused on the intimate act of writing it, is now all about getting it dressed and out into the world.

So that's what Pollock meant. You know when you're finished making love because... you're finished making love.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why the title?

In "Family Man," the opening story of my collection, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, the bewildered main character doesn't understand why he sometimes feels relief as he leaves his suburban home on weekday mornings; he tries to deny all threats to his self-concept as a man with a forever indivisible family, even as the edifice crumbles. Initially, I thought that those words in his mind, "...the principle of ultimate indivisibility," referred to families. But as fragments coalesced into stories, and stories connected to other stories, a deeper view revealed itself.

I used that phrase for the title because the subtle thread that holds the whole collection together is the knowledge that we humans, following our unique storylines that feel so separate, are nevertheless all cells in one vast body, interconnected in all directions by visible and invisible lines of energy. Without that vision driving me, I doubt I ever would have finished the stories and assembled them into a book.

Seen against the drama of "reality" -- the illusory world that we must treat as true -- the intangible vectors of influence that link us to each other may seem flimsy, unimportant, easy to forget. But they are the most crucial thing for us to remember. I was pleased to read my thoughts perfectly expressed by Jason Stern in his column "Esteemed Reader" in the January '09 issue of Chronogram: "The fact is that there is a present emergency that might drive humanity to recognize our inherent oneness, if we can feel it. It is not terrorists or the scary economy, global warming or global war, or even our personal plights. These are only symptoms and results of the real emergency, which is our alienation from that which matters. What matters is the consciousness of inherent unity, and the strength of being to make that consciousness real in our world." (Thanks, Jason!)

My hope is that even as insubstantial as literary fiction may seem in today's loud world, it still has some power to help wake up from hibernation the ancient wisdom that we are One.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Beginning

I write fiction, with a collection of short stories completed, other stories in various states of evolution, and two novels in progress. The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility is my book of thirteen linked stories... an assemblage that developed over the course of twenty long years. This blog will be tangentially related to that collection... its themes, settings, characters, events... as well as the story of its construction, publication, destiny.

The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility weaves together the disparate lives of ordinary people as they stumble through tiny everyday epiphanies on their way from confusion and loss toward redemption. With structures both traditional and experimental, these stories explore the bonds of family; the impacts of religion; our intertwined struggles with grief, love, and addiction; the intangible circuits of influence that link us to strangers; and the blind but determined striving for consciousness that is common to human experience.

Stories in the collection have been published in a variety of journals and have won a Short Fiction Award and an Honorable Mention from Chronogram Magazine, a Fiction Fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, and a Pushcart Prize nomination.