>In an Uncharted Country

>Writing prompts come from the strangest places. Usually I am struck by a character, a person I have seen or heard about, and then I place the character in a scene and then watch what happens. Since I am trying to complete my story collection, though, about people in the small Virginia town of Rugglesville, and have written 10 stories so far, I am now working on following some of the characters who appeared in earlier stories. Since most of the stories are meant to “resonate,” I am hoping that readers will want to know what happens next as much as I do. So it isn’t the characters at this point.

I started a story today, tentatively called In an Uncharted Country because of the automated announcement I received a couple of days ago from Glimmer Train that January 31 is the deadline for submission to the Very Short Fiction Award competition. For GT, “very short” is under 2,000 words. While I have a stable of flash pieces, under 500 words, I didn’t have anything nearing 2,000. Time to write something! I can do it by Monday, I know I can!

So the new story follows Walt, the main character from The Clattering of Bones (Spring 2004 issue of Timber Creek Review). When last seen, he has given up hope that his wife, Patsy, will come home, so he gets in his truck and drives away. Where will he go? That’s what the new story will reveal.

>Christian Taliban

>I mean to be mostly literary in this forum, but from time to time I won’t be able to keep myself from straying into the social and political realms. I did that on Day One, but I’ve been good since then. But today, in part because I just saw George Bush in a news conference on TV, I want to speak about my biggest worry, and that is the rise of Evangelicalism, or what I have dubbed the “Christian Taliban.” It is the most important concern we face, I believe, because it not only affects how we live day to day–at least in my community, which is predominantly a deeply conservative one–but also because the political leadership in this country is infected, and guided, by the same disease. Intolerance. Arrogance. Belligerance. It is all part of the same problem. Here in Augusta County, Virginia, the disease is currently manifested in the debate over Weekly Religious Education, or WRE. It seems that school children are excused during the day once each week for 60-90 minutes to attend Bible study classes. With a signed note from a parent, children can opt out of this program, and this option is apparently what keeps the program from being a Constitutional violation. But the participating children and parents alike defend themselves from criticism of this coercive program by calling their detractors God-haters and Satan-lovers, and blaming all crime on the “removal of prayer from the schools.” We are in the grip of an epidemic that I fear will never go away.

>The Return of OA

>The resurrected Oxford American arrived in my mailbox today. (Or, more precisely, my mail tub. See yesterday’s post.) It looks terrific, with lots to explore, including pieces by Barry Hannah, Michael Parker and Carol Ann Fitzgerald, among many others. Welcome Back!

>Junky

>Apparently, I’m addicted to mail. On my recent sojourn in Mexico, it was difficult to go more than a day without hitting an internet café (a monkey of a different sort), to check email, the New York Times, update this here blog, etc. When I returned, the first thing I did, after picking up Bhikku from the kennel, was head to the county post office to claim the mail that had accumulated over the course of those 20 or so days. There was a lot. There always is. Since moving to rural Virginia nearly three years ago, there has never once been a day when I go no mail. Sometimes just a catalog or political trash, sometimes just a magazine, but ordinarily I can count on a literary journal or two, a rejection letter from one of those same journals, a bill, occasionally an actual letter, and the catalogs, magazines and political trash. So when I leave the post office after a trip, it is always armed with one of this postal service tubs, the ones they are always claiming to be short of, filled to the brim with mail. Once I left with two.

Last Friday, with my mail tub in arm, I watched the postal service employee efficiently scrawl on the hold-mail form, “Resume Delivery 1-22-05.” She had me sign it. I was pleased. There would be more mail the next day.

But there was no mail. I know this because I put outgoing mail in the mailbox on the street, raised the red flag, and then watched the snow fall. At 8:00pm, although barely an inch had accumulated, the flag was still up. The mail-woman had not come. I didn’t blame her. The roads were bad. I could wait. (Indeed, I hadn’t quite finished going through the tub I’d picked up on Friday.)

So the flag was still up today, Monday. By that time, I’d built a considerable pile of outgoing mail, including a couple of pieces that required special attention, like my Bread Loaf application that I planned to send by Priority Mail (not because of any rush—the deadline is March 19—but because I wanted delivery confirmation), so I made a trip to the post office. It never occurred to me to do anything but drop off the tub (they do run out, you know) and my outgoing letters. I went to the gym, I ran some errands, and came home. Order had returned: the flag was down, signaling the pickup of my Saturday mail and, more importantly, the all-important delivery of fresh mail. What would there be? An acceptance for one of my many outstanding submissions? A Christmas card from the Brogans? (They usually don’t send their cards until February, but it could be early this year, you never know.) The New Republic? The books I ordered from Amazon while I was in Mexico?

I trotted across the road to the box, opened the lid and—nothing. Black emptiness. Cold air. No mail. Could it be that there was nothing for me? That nothing had arrived in Augusta County, Virginia for me since Friday? Was the streak at an end? No. It couldn’t be. There must have been a mixup. Somehow the redelivery message didn’t get down to the trenches where it needed to be. A mistake has been made. Heads will roll. Where the hell is my mail?

Update: Indeed, mistakes were made. On Tuesday when I inquired at the post office, a second tub was handed to me. When on Friday I picked up the held mail, apparently the agent missed some, and the carrier didn’t know what to do with so much mail for me, since it wouldn’t all fit in my mail box. So she did nothing, presumably expecting that I’d figure out there was a problem and investigate. She was right.

>Back in the Saddle

>It’s easier than I thought it would be. I sat down this morning, opened the file with my notes for the novel, and picked up where I left off a couple of months ago at page 156, with good old Fletcher about to visit David in prison for the second time. I remember these people! I know what they look like, I know what they want. I’m having a wonderful time. Is it possible that I can finish this revision by the end of February? God, I hope so.

The current Writer’s Chronicle (February 2005) has a terrific article by Frederick Reiken: “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists.” Exactly. That was the problem, and has been through the many versions of my novel. But abandonment isn’t the answer; it’s a good story. Turning Fletcher into a real person is what this new version is all about.

>Flurry

>And I ain’t talking about snow. Not quite ready to actually write anything, and still organizing the files and the desk, and unpacking, and shovelling (that’s a lie–for the inch and a half that accumulated I’m willing to let the sun and the wind do the work), and generally tending to business. I’ll write tomorrow. But the flurry: I have a pile of languishing flash fiction and prose poems that need to be out in the world. Snail mail submissions seemed like too much trouble for these little darlings, so I’ve targed several zines that seem creditable and I’ve made numerous cybersubmissions this weekend. One flash here, another there, two poems at a third place, five at a fourth. In the process, I discovered New Pages, a highly useful tool for both print and online publication searches, with hotlinks to websites. There are dozens of lists around, on and offline, but this is the best one I’ve seen.

>Over Under the Volcano

>I have returned home from Mexico, unpacked, gone through the stacks of papers and mail, paid bills, picked up Bhikku from the kennel, restocked groceries, caught up on sleep, and have generally settled in. Before I completely return to my regular schedule, though, I wanted to record some final thoughts on the workshop experience with Grace Paley.

Grace was wonderful, filled with honesty and directness, but not quite as teacherly as I’d expected. In contrast, Russell Banks last year used almost every paragraph under discussion as a tool of one kind or another, either to demonstrate a flaw or a strength, or to link to some relevant story from his own experience. Grace just isn’t that way.

Still, there were a few important tips.

“The short story is closer to poetry than the novel.” As practiced by Grace Paley, this is demonstrably so. As practiced by me, not so clear. But it is good advice to keep in mind.

“Write what you don’t know about what you know—what you don’t understand.” When she said this, I commented that it echoed the advice in her essay The Value of Not Understanding Everything.

“Dialogue is action, it moves the story.” Especially in a Grace Paley story.

Is the workshop a valuable experience? I was a bit frustrated by the reaction of the group to my stories, and probably they were to my reactions to their stories. As is often the case in these sessions, Grace was far less critical than the rest of us. Rarely did she point to specific language, but was more interested in character and thrust, in endings. With less confidence in our own critical abilities, we tended to look at the finer points for flaws. This was a talented group—the 4 more experienced fiction writers (including me) all had MFAs, and two of those teach creative writing. The three with less fiction experience all had considerable non-fiction credentials and interesting work histories. I duly wrote down everything that was said when my stories were workshopped, and soon I’ll need to begin the revisions. Again.

>Severed Heads

>It has been a pleasant morning in Guanajuato, despite occasional coughing spells and wheezing at the tops of hills. I visited a museum here with a sordid past–it was once used as a prison (originally it was a granary) and the walls still sport hooks where the heads of various revolutionaries were hung in these handy little bird cages. Grim.

Then to the birthplace of Diego Rivera, just down the hill from there. The family’s furniture was not as interesting as the large collection of Rivera’s works, from different phases.

Then on to the Cervantes (Museo Iconografico del Quijote) this afternoon. I’ve never seen a museum quite like this. It is filled with images of don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with a few of Cervantes thrown in. 800 statues, paintings and drawings. My favorite was a painting of Cervantes at his desk, quill in hand, with ghostly Quixote and Panza looking over his shoulder. I wanted to get print of that–imagine your characters standing behind you as you work?

I took a look at the weather back home–could it be I’ll be arriving in a snowstorm again?

>Frente Frio

>I already felt like crap because of my cold, and did myself little good by walking around the cobbled narrow streets of Guanajuato last night. When I gave up and went to my ancient room–is it possible that the ceilings are 20 feet high?–I could barely move. The wind screamed–these little streets create odd wind tunnels, I guess–and I could feel the temperature dropping (that is, my feet could feel it–my face was burning up). Thank goodness the Patriots/Colts game was on TV (in Spanish, but so what?) so I could just curl up and do nothing but wait for the fever/chills to subside. The Patriots looked great.

Before I collapsed, though, I went in search of dinner and ended up in a little loud college bar, La Botellita, decorated with, um, little bottles. Had a couple of beers and some tacos and tried to remember the story, mentioned in yesterday’s post. It didn´t come back, darn it, but I sketched a new one. Lesson: get up and write it down when the inspiration comes.

It is Monday, and most of the attractions I want to visit here are closed today–the Cervantes museum (Guanajato is the home of the International Cervantes Festival every October) and the Diego Rivera Birthplace and Museum. So I’m just wandering around. I’m feeling better, at least.

>It’s over–back to writing?

>The workshop is over. At our farewell dinner at Casa Bugambilia in Tepoztlan–a beautiful estate nestled in the mountains–there were hugs all around. Grace led the way. I’m hopeful to stay in touch with her–what an amazing person! She pulled me aside before the party and apologized if she was “too bossy” about the ending of my second submission. The truth is, that was exactly what I needed and I told her so.

Back to Mexico City yesterday where my incipient cold kicked in. I was reluctant to travel, but I got on a bus this morning and came to Guanajuato, an unbelievably beautiful, old city 5 hours north of the capital. I’m staying in the Posada Santa Fe, a 150 year old hotel. No arguments there, but it has character all over the place.

As I was thrashing in my bed trying to get to sleep–congestion and sore throat impeding the process–I wrote a story in my head. I, of course, forgot about it until I sat down to post this entry. Now I have to go back to the hotel and commit it to paper. Bye!