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.