Thursday, July 10, 2014

Bad Company in Green Hills Literary Lantern

Checkout my latest story in The Green Hills Literary Lantern. See the link below. This story, Bad Company, is an excerpt from a Civil War novel I've been working on for several years now. It deals with the border wars in Missouri and how young men ended up serving under Quantrill and other guerilla fighters. Frank and Jesse James are characters in the novel and learned many of their tactics from Bloody Bill Anderson. I might add that their careers as bank robbers began when they were attempting to avenge the man (Lt. Col. Samuel P. Cox) who killed Anderson (pictured below) after he had left the military and just so happened to work in a bank.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Temple

I was in a building that made me think of an old institutional building, the kind of place with the strong smell of floor cleaners and perhaps the sound of an old Victrola playing antique-sounding orchestra music over a loudspeaker on the wrong speed. An elegant looking Indian man was walking next to me dressed in tennis whites, long white flannel slacks, and carrying two wooden racquets under his arm like day-old newspapers.

"Do you think we'll find a court?" I asked.

The man shrugged indifferently, a bit annoyed.

He led us through a maze of hallways and stairwells until we came to a little lobby area that seemed to have a sliding glass door behind the orange and green leatherette chairs. He stood at the door and slid it open for me as I approached. The courts were all full of people blithely hitting old-fashioned white tennis balls with wooden racquets on tennis courts made of brick, literally bricks, with grass growing between them.

"They're all full," I said.

"I know where we'll find more," my guide said. "Come with me."

I followed him through another maze of long hallways and rooms with black and white tile in one room and frayed Persian rugs in the next.

We found another lobby area, almost identical to the previous one, but this time it was French doors with curtains. Through the window I could make out green hedges, mossy green brick tennis courts, and a glimpse of men and women in tennis whites thwacking balls back and forth.

"Do you think we'll find an empty court here?" I asked.

My tennis partner shrugged, "It's all cause and effect."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

How to Start a Buddhist Practice

For years I'd admired Buddhist philosophy and studied it, but there was a problem. I felt I couldn't commit to any sort of practice because I knew so little about it. What if I discovered something I couldn't live with the thought of? Perhaps there was something, a teaching, buried in the pages of a book I hadn't read that would make it seem impractical or morally reprehensible? Buddhist meditate, but did they worship Buddha? I really knew very little about it, but I'd even taken a survey of world religions where I'd learned some of these misgivings weren't accurate. But wouldn't I look like a fool if I told anyone I'd become a Buddhist? Besides that, in my twenties I'd even attended a Bible College for a year before it became clear to me that I probably wasn't suited for it despite my good intentions. Even back then I was guilty of over-intellectualizing Christianity and so it's not surprising that, looking back on it, I did the same thing with my study of Buddhism.

I half-heartedly tried meditating. Trying to concentrate on my breath, rid myself of desire, focus on nothing, and become enlightened seemed an impossible goal. Even meditating in the moment without my monkey mind take over every ten seconds caused me to think I'd failed before I even started. So, I started reading book after book on the subject. There were some many schools of thought and so much to learn. But that wasn't overwhelming in itself. I enjoyed reading the books, but after awhile it was clear I probably wasn't going to commit to a meditation practice. Intellectually I felt that Buddhism as a philosophy was right for me, but there seemed to be a lot of requirements like any religion that I wasn't prepared to jump into. Was I going to have to give up all earthly things I enjoyed like beer, steaks, sex, and everything else that made life enjoyable? Would I have to shave my head and wear robes to prove I was serious?

The first person I met that mentioned he was a Buddhist was my supervisor at work. A man named George Dillard. When I first met him, I thought this guy is intimidating looking. He was one of the nicest people I had ever met. He happened to mention that he was a vegetarian and I'm not sure why but I asked him if that was for dietary or moral reasons and to my surprise he affirmed that it was for moral reasons. However, like a number of Buddhists I've met since he didn't have much to say about it and I wasn't sure what to ask. Did he go to a temple? Did he know Kung Fu? I wasn't sure what kind of Buddhist he was, but then I wouldn't have known the difference anyway.

Fast forward about eight years later and I was again very interested in Buddhism. I would go back and forth with it, but I knew I wanted to attempt to make more of a commitment to it. I just wasn't sure which school of Buddhist thought to commit too. This was a major stumbling block in my mind to beginning a practice which is why I'm writing this tonight. I hope to encourage anyone who is interested to simply start a practice whether you know everything about it or not. Just jump right into it. I wish I had been better about this years ago. There are a dizzying array of thoughts about teachings and practices out there. I've read Lama Surya Das, the Dalai Lama, Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, and many others. I won't go into it all here, but what I will say is that I learned something from each of them and found them all very fascinating in one way or another. But finally I contacted someone who I learned online had a group of Nichiren Buddhists come to her house and chant. There was what looked like a shrine in her living room and people from many different countries: China, Japan, England, and others. There were as many black people as white, and probably a few more women than men there. It was a very diverse group. The man I talked to from China told me later it was very difficult for him to tell his parents he was Buddhist because they were Christian missionaries in China who had undergone a great deal of persecution for their faith. I found this very moving to hear how anguished he was for his parent's sake, but still determined to follow his own faith.

I knelt down in the floor and made a steeple with my hands and heard everyone chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. I didn't know what this meant and it sound a little spooky to my ear. But I tried to wrap my tongue around these foreign sounding words and gave it my best shot. As soon as I started chanting I felt like an electric current was running through my body. Maybe it was just adrenaline from a new experience--even fear that I had gotten myself into something all very foreign. It was all very orderly and they had snacks and soft drinks afterwards. People made small talk. I thought I'd be descended upon by people trying to proselytize and make me a card-carrying member but instead everyone was nice if not a bit reserved.

Over the next few weeks I started chanting, but to be honest I also started finding stories relating to controversies about the SGI and so I was afraid to talk to the people I'd just met about it. I just assumed all these stories must mean something so it wasn't long before I went back to only reading about Buddhism and half-heartedly trying to meditate in other more well-known (to me) traditions, although some of them had also been embroiled in controversies as well. Not that I was afraid of controversy per se, hadn't I basically (off and on) grown up in an independent charismatic tradition? So that wasn't all there was to it, but still how did you choose from so many sects? Well? It's a good question.

I went to graduate school at UNCW and about the time I was finishing up my degree there I began to start thinking of Buddhism yet again. Now, I had an infant daughter. So, I reached out again to another Nichiren group who were very welcoming. I even brought Claira in her car seat with me. I meditated with, again, a diverse group of mostly middle-aged women from several countries who found it very amusing that I had the baby with me, but they were very sweet. One young woman even gave me her own Juzu beads and I chanted with them. I still have them today. This was also in an African American lady's home whose name I no longer remember but she had a tremendously patient spirit about her. Again, I fell away from the actual practice. It made so much sense intellectually, but as a practice it still seemed too exotic for me which is funny when you consider the Christian tradition I'd been in as a young man included speaking in tongues and miraculous healing!

When we moved back to Missouri I became involved with a wonderful group called ShowMe Dharma. I meditated with them a few times too, but then I found mself off and on going back to chanting on my own. It was beginning to roll off the tongue as I practiced alone but still I was terribly inconsistent. During that time I began to find that employers and people in general were not terribly impressed by my MFA in Creative Writing. What's more it made some employers loathe to hire me for any reason. No one knew what it was exactly anyway, but they knew it made me overqualified to work for them. I started teaching as an adjunct at MU and other colleges in Mid-Missouri. While family and others thought an MFA should count for something it was clear that it was a big liability without a published book in hand. The problem with teaching as an adjunct is one that I won't go into too much here except to say that from semester to semester I had no idea how many classes I could cobble together for the next semester. Money was a big issue. It seemed I'd put myself behind the eight ball with regards to getting a job that paid anything that a guy with two degrees ought to be able to get. Small colleges want teachers with PhDs. Universities want people with an MFA if they have a couple of well-regarded books. I was in big trouble. I began to consider getting a second masters or getting a PhD. My wife thought I was nuts. She didn't understand why I suddenly couldn't find a real job although other people in my shoes knew all too well what it meant. Finally, I caught a break, or thought I had when a professor I worked with told me his wife worked at the University of Missouri Press. I interviewed and was hired in January of 2008. I was going to try working in publishing. I'd wondered what it was all about and thought it would be a great opportunity although it didn't pay particularly well but my life had been about books for years so it seemed a natural progression at the time.

To make a long story short, the University of Missouri Press began to lay people off less than a year after I started. Nearly 30 people were employed by the press when I started, but by the time I left there were less than a dozen. This was during the time that the economy came to screeching halt too. Universities all across the country were beginning to question the viability of their presses. Weren't they businesses? Why didn't our press make a ton of money? Again, I could write about this and maybe I will some day but the woes of the University of Missouri Press are all over the internet. These kinds of things were happening all over the country because of the economy in large part. Needless to say, it was a stressful time for me professionally and personally. My wife and I had another baby. We were having problems in our relationship that most couples encounter in one form or another and we were trying to feel our way out of them.

My wife found out she had breast cancer. It was a terrible blow. At the same time, many of my co-workers were being let go or strongly encouraged to retire if they had their thirty years in. These euphemisms for what exactly was happening at the Press were strongly denied. The staff as a whole was not privy to any details concerning our fate first hand, but it was described to us at staff meetings and we could only assume what we were hearing was true. Apparently, people were deciding to leave the Press or retire on their own or so I was meant to understand. I had no idea if I was going to be next or not. It was terrifying in a way. When I was younger, I'd never worried about jobs before. Now that I had a family it seemed terribly unfair. At the same time I was trying to prepare for the inevitable and applying for other jobs like mad. I wasn't even getting interviews. The doctors recommended that Cassie have a double mastectomy. She was only in her thirties. She was terrified. I didn't know how to comfort her or even know enough to give her advice. I decided that all I could do was help her get through it. Again, these are not the details anyone wants to hear about it even if you have been through it. It was a terrible time. I found out that I wasn't going to lose my job. I think the powers that be decided it might be too cruel to let me go given the circumstances. I really don't know. I moved from Marketing to Acquisitions. The work itself was interesting, but it was clear my new boss and I did not get along. He seemed overbearing, not only to me, but everyone in house. I felt I had to bite my tongue because of Cassie's condition. I found myself resenting him one minute and then telling myself to buck up the next. I could only control myself and my own attitude. Still, I struggled, I floundered. I was miserable at home and at work. At the same time, my daughter began to struggle in school. She was not an easy child the school said which we knew all too well. She was very intelligent and wanted her own way, and in school she seemed to be immersed in her own imagination. We met with her teachers and the principal and they made subtle intimations that she should be tested for ADHD. I had my doubts. It seemed like everything was spiraling out of my control.

We had meetings at work where we were told we might lose our jobs by the next meeting while at the same time we were told we shouldn't worry. It was looking very grim. I had taken on the responsibilities that more than handful of full time people had handled before, but without the benefit of being trained by someone who knew exactly what these duties entailed. I found myself eating lunch in the break room and then I'd pace back and forth behind our building and chanting Nam-myoh-renge-kyo. I was chanting for a new job. I was chanting for my life. Nothing seemed to change. Certainly, not overnight. It took awhile. My attitude began to change. I knew I had to take action. I began to get some interviews with other presses, but working for a press that might shut its doors for financial reasons (nevermind that many presses had these same challenges and probably still do) didn't make for a powerful argument to hire me I'm sure. It was difficult for interview purposes to put a positive spin on it. Well, I'm looking for a new job with a press because this one is about to shut its doors like the late great SMU Press for example. Now, I had responsibilities that maybe few in a similar position had, but no official new job duties just a mandate to do more work. A few people had stepped away from (for me) unimaginable salaries and yet there was nothing for those us who remained. There was belt tightening at presses all over the country to be sure, but it made it rather awkward to try to explain the array of job responsibilities outside of the commonly accepted job description for my position. Looking back I realize we weren't the only ones who were basically being told, "Just feel lucky you have a job." It was hard to feel lucky when you knew you might lose it any minute. And, just knowing that so many people had already lost their jobs or were facing the same threat didn't make it any easier to bear. Anyway, it was a real problem. I knew I had to take action. I wanted to take action. I was finally offered a part-time job with the University library but financially I could not accept it. My wife was working again, but that kind of job wouldn't pay enough to cover childcare. It was maddening. I've often heard people say that people without a job just don't work...and if it were them...they would take any job they could get but the reality is much more complex. I began to chant with more and more faith. It was all I felt I had at the time though I had more than I realized in family and friends. People were trying to help me in ways I didn't know.

Eventually I was offered a job to teach as an Instructor at LSU. The only catch was I'd have to move my family to Louisiana. A friend I'd made online, the writer Chris Tusa, told me he would talk to his boss on my behalf. I don't know if he could sense how desperate I was but I knew if I got a job like this I'd definitely take it. I was chanting more but always alone. I didn't want anyone to hear me. It seemed to make sense to chant for something practical on a human level rather than something as esoteric as enlightenment. I finally begun a Buddhist practice under great duress. The tide was beginning to turn. Finally, I was offered a position in the English department at LSU. Chris and Pam Tusa treated us like they'd known us for our entire lives. The people I met in the English department were great, very collegial and welcoming to me even though I was only another new instructor. My boss, Barbara Heifferon, was very experience with running a University Writing Program and had an empathetic heart to help her instructors. I'd even noticed that her emails contained a Buddhist quote under her signature line. Well, as you can imagine, I'm leaving a good deal out here. So what's happening now?

I've been getting more and more into my Buddhist practice. This is not to say it doesn't take much to rattle me at times. One benefit I've seen is that my interactions with my students has taken on a more positive light. Instead of regarding my practice as an esoteric philosophy that began in the 13th Century with Nichiren Daishonin, I now believe this Buddhism is more like a new technology to be applied to my life. Life 8.0. In Nichiren Buddhism, faith is not a safe haven from struggles, but an immersion in real life. It's dealing with life's problems that is key rather than wishing they had never happened in the first place. In life there is suffering as we all know, but it's how you prepare yourself to handle these problems that can make all the difference. Buddhism isn't about contemplating some impossible to grasp riddle, but faith itself is an action. Buddhism is about taking action. The best action to take is to begin with a simple but powerful practice.

This Buddhism is suited well to my personal and professional life too. The Soka Gokkai (value-creating society) was created by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (a follower of John Dewey) to reform education. Also, the idea of improving myself to transform society is very appealing. This process of hosshaku kempon (to reveal one's true identity while discarding one's transient identity) is the essential process of realizing one's essential or Buddha nature as one's true self. One's true self is to be found via doing Buddhist practice to surmount the lower worlds (or life conditions) and consistently manifest Buddhahood or Enlightenment as one's predominant tendency. All I can tell you now, is don't let a lack of knowledge about Buddhism keep you from beginning a Buddhist practice today. Whatever tradition you find yourself in will be of great benefit to you. To begin the Buddhist practice I've been talking about all you have to do is put your hands together in front of you and say Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Agragarian Tradition Vs. The Evils of Industrialization: Conversation Spills out of the Classroom

I wanted to write about the simple yet complex ideas that the Fugitive poets were writing about in I'll Take My Stand. We read the Introduction in our anthology (for English 2270 at LSU) that I thought might be interesting to discuss a bit more. The Fugitive Poets began as a group concerned with Southern poetry in response to H. L. Mencken's charge that the South was the Sahara of the Bozart in that famous essay, but a new branch was created later that we know as the Agrarians. Principally these writers were John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren.

I'll not try to restate their position in too much detail here, but I will attempt to frame their view as succinctly as I can here. This excerpt is from our Norton anthology of Southern literature introduction to The Southern Agrarians: "Their thesis was that human beings, and particularly southerners, functioned better under an agrarian, as opposed to an industrial, way of life . . ." Now, that excerpt alone sounds benign enough but the language of their Introduction to the essay in I'll Take My Stand is much more radical and I was wondering why our class seemed to not be particularly moved or surprised by this language.

In another excerpt, the Introduction damns the "apologists of industrialism" with strong rhetoric comparing our industrial society to "Sovietists" and "Communists" which sounds odd to my ear since it was published in 1930 as I mentioned before when many intellectuals were very open and curious about socialism and communism in general and it was sometime before the McCarthy years of the 1950s and even later in the 1970s and '80s when the principal villain in film and television were KGB Communist agents. So their rhetoric might not have sounded the same alarmist note then that it would have in years to come:

"We therefore look upon the Communist menace as a menace indeed, but not as a Red one; because it is simply according to the blind drift of our industrial development to expect in America at last much the same economic system as that imposed by violence upon Russia in 1917."

What's your view?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Piece I wrote about Huck Finn in Missouri Life magazine

Here's a link to a piece I wrote on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain now online at Missouri Life magazine:

News: Readers & Writers Series at LSU

I just wanted to share the news that this year I will be the Coordinator for the Readers & Writers Series at LSU. Really looking forward to being involved with the series that last year saw, among others, fine writers such as Jack Butler and Randall Kenan read from their work.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Maria Sharapova Taps Jimmy Connors as New Coach

This is one of those very interesting developments in tennis that transcends the sport. I think this is the case mainly because Jimmy Connors transcended tennis by making it interesting to non-tennis fans like his own American rival John McEnroe. Now the central question here is whether this will be a good partnership that will translate into major victories for Sharapova. It remains to be seen what the results might be, but we can look to Connors' stint as Andy Roddick's coach from 2006-2008. In my mind it's clear he was a good influence on Roddick's results but it did not translate into Ws at the grand slams. But the reasons might be more complicated than you think. At the time Roddick still had that dominating serve but others players were on the rise that hit it harder than he did. Also, I don't think his age play such a vital role since he was still in his late 20s when they said he was effectively washed up but Roddick's game certainly didn't have the variety of the other top players. Often Roddick appeared to be stroking the ball without a clear purpose, more like a rally session, and that's something Connors may help Sharapova capitalize on. Sharapova's great nemesis is Serena Williams who, had she taken the game a bit more seriously, would have held the crown in terms of numbers of grand slam titles easily but she was often more interested in her off court pursuits like her clothing line. There's nothing wrong with it, but to me it would have been very interesting to see how she and Venus would have revolutionized the game had they played more throughout their career. Now Venus has the specter of this auto-immune disease which has seriously impacted her tennis. On the other hand, Serena seems to have a resurgence as though she has realized that an athlete in her thirties has to get on with it.

So how does Connors get it done with Sharapova when he couldn't do so with Roddick? Well, unlike many of the critics out there I respect Connors game. He had a very unusual style of play. He hit the ball hard and flat. He relied on his return of serve rather than a big first serve which was then a departure from the big game as espoused by Jack Kramer. He had the so-called skyhook rather than the straight overhead. An exciting and also unorthodox shot. He only made minimal use of the advantage of being a lefty by using a slow hook to the ad-court instead of a more sharply struck ball. His forehand was thought to be a huge weakness when players hit off-speed, low balls to it to induce a mistake rather than hitting a winner. So why did he win 8 Grand Slam titles if he was so average as the pundits out there keep making reference to?

Jimmy Connors was a fighter. He let it all hang out. He wanted his opponents to know he would stay out there until those cows you heard about indeed came home. This can be intimidating. The man had incredible hand-eye coordination and fired that two-fisted backhand like a shotgun blast against his opponents. Later in his career he became much more tactical. He seemed to be more often trying to hit an approach shot and come into the net to end the point but only when he knew he would have his opponent in an awkward position. At the tailend of his career he used his on-court battles from a battle-tested career to show that not only could he physically hang in there with kids half his age, but he knew how to beat them even though technically their games might have been better in some ways. Maybe this just comes with age, but in the twilight of his career he used the crowd with wisecracks and funny antics to get the people on his side which was quite a turn around from earlier in his career when he was giving players and chair umpires the finger or leaving the court after a particularly bitter loss. Like Connors I think Sharapova could choose her shots a bit more wisely. Not always go for broke with power, but be a bit more patient by choosing to play more strategically. The racquets and incredible physiques of today's player insure power at the top level of the game, but strategy (hitting the ball with purpose) is what most players could benefit from most.

Will Connors change Sharapova's game? She's a golden slam winner already and at 26 she's now a veteran of the tour. It would be tough to make major changes in her game. I think the difference between Roddick and Sharapova as athletes is that Roddick really never changed his game and he needed to add more variety to make himself more competitive with the top players. As good as Roddick was he didn't seem to be in it mentally after those 3 titanic Wimbledon losses to Roger Federer. Let's face it, Roddick was up against the greatest player in history when he was in his prime. If Roddick had faced anyone else I think he walks away with the hardware, but at that time opponents were terrified of Federer. He seemed almost unbeatable at times and especially at Wimbledon. Sharapova seems to genuinely want to improve her game. It's just a guess but I know she isn't satisfied with coming up second to Williams. Many players seem to feel, maybe rightly so, that they will definitely lose to Williams so it's some sort of honor just to play her. Sharapova doesn't seem to feel this way. In fact, their rivalry may have contributed to their early losses at the Big W this year.

I don't want to go on record as saying that Sharapova has ever had confidence issues, but I think her difficulties serving were partly due to an injury but it can also be a sign of nerves. Also, Sharapova needs to work on her movement. Many players these days are injuring themselves with what I call the European electric slide into the ball even on hard courts. They would be much better off learning to take smaller steps and to get into position rather than trying to time a slide on any surface other than clay. Connors had the best footwork of any player I have ever seen. Often when he played, someone like Tony Trabert or Bud Collins would tell their audience to close their eyes and listen to Connors shoes as they squeaked across the court. The man knew how to move on the court and Sharapova may never move like a gazelle but she could learn to move better. If this is something Connors will work on with her I'm not sure.

Connors will talk to her about how to take advantage of Williams' weakness (what few there may be) and also he may dig into his bag of tricks. Connors was one of the best at upsetting the rhythm and flow of his opponent and taking the momentum from them. Will he do this? I think Sharapova would be receptive to this kind of strategic overhaul of her game. If nothing else Serena Williams might want to have her dad back in the friend's box when Sharapova has the intimidating presence of Connors casting his storied shadow onto the court. Just look at what Ivan Lendhl has done for Andy Murray. I think Connors and Sharapova could well do the same but it won't be easy.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Come to a reading at the Rusty Nail in NOLA

Reading @ The Rusty Nail in Nola on May 15th (7pm) with memoirists Eli Hastings and Margaux Fragoso, Fiction writer Chris Tusa, (me too by the way). Stop by if you’re in the area. ...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Clearly Now, the Rain by Eli Hastings

Eli Hastings has written a memoir that will stay with you long after you have finished it. Not only is Eli a great friend of mine, but he's a glorious writer who has written his heart out for you. I urge you to get this book as soon as you can and read it as if your life depended on it. If you don't believe me just check out what Ben Percy, Paul Lisicky, and Kirkus Reviews have already said about it!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Nashville 1864: The Dying of the LightNashville 1864: The Dying of the Light by Madison Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book when it first came out and it was the first book I ever read by Madison Jones. I had the feeling that I'd earlier had with Flannery O'Connor when I read Wise Blood in college--I felt cheated as though someone purposely kept her from me! That's probably not true, but Nashville 1864 immediately brought to mind The Unvanguished by William Faulkner. It's a slim book but it's definitely a book of high literary quality and entertaining to boot. Jones is a first rate writer who I keep thinking will suddenly attract the notice of everyone in the way that Cormac McCarthy, who had also labored in relative obscurity as well, did with All The Pretty Horses. Over the years he's published great books, but labored for the most part in obscurity. I believe he's one of those writers who deserve a greater audience. Writers like Flannery O'Connor and James Dickey (among many others) praised his work. I believe this slim volume would serve as a great introduction to Jones along with The Innocent.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Dead Dog Effigy of Writing Failure:
Grant is Dead, God Junkies, The Penetralium

by Daren Dean

If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy
--Jesus, from the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas

I. The father of the bride stammers out an emotional thank you to all present
for joining in the celebration. David Caruthers chokes me up more with his barely
controlled feeling than the exact words which have already fled from consciousness. Too
many glasses of cabernet have dimmed the exactness of the words in my memory, but I
understand it's the emotion that's the important thing. Or, it might be the fact that my
exhausted four year old daughter, Claira, lies beneath the table in this country club dining
room with my suit jacket draped over her. Something tells me it will be all too soon when
her mother and I will be overseeing her marriage. How difficult it will be to deliver this
girl into the arms of another man--this little girl is my princess-angel.

The bride in question was a flower girl at our wedding back in 1990. It was an
outdoor wedding especially windy that day and I remember she was carefully trying to
place the rose petals on the sidewalk. She was six years old then; now she's a college
graduate. A woman with a husband who might have children of her own in the next few
years. It hardly seems possible, but Kelly is married now with a freshly minted last name.

What this wedding calls into question is the passage of time and how we view it at
different stages of life. I look over at the dance floor where the bride and groom, children,
young and old, are flailing around to the rhythm of frenetic 1960's pop music--celebrating
this new beginning--this life of two people who have chosen to become one and there is
my brother-in-law Quentin, all six feet and some five inches of him, swaying with my
baby son Finn, as if he were the father, as if he can't wait to be a father himself soon. I
think about the passage of time, my fortieth birthday looms in November, and how little I
have accomplished as a writer, as a father, or a human being. To keep this metaphor
going I can choose to renew my vows as a writer, but the sad truth is I've spent years in
dreaming of being a writer, a few actually writing, and now I wonder about the futility of
the project I have dedicated myself to.

A writer I know and respect recently told me that his wife, also a writer, threatens
that she might do this or that instead with her life, but he says she would be better off to
resign herself to being a writer at middle age. I know he means this bit of advice for me
and I latch onto it like a life preserver. It doesn't fill the void--that black hole of rejection
or soothe the shattered ego of being referred to as a writer with talent, and yet your work
does not suit our needs. This is in no way a reflection on the literary quality of the work.
Another editor, more astute, may accept it. Or, the agent who once sent me a form
rejection letter with the diction and resonance Faulkner himself would have been proud
of, I wish I could send you a more personal response, but in this business efficiency
vanquishes humanity every time. Great rhetoric, I think, but only because you let it dear
agent, only because you allow it.

We work in our own darkness a great deal
with little real knowledge of what we are doing.
--John Steinbeck

II. At the time of this writing I am a failure as a writer. I've been a failure in a lot
of other ways too, but that's probably outside the confines of this piece. I studied creative
writing in graduate school but that's no guarantee that I'll be any good. I've been
published a couple of times here and there, but sometimes I think more a testament to the
law of averages than as confirmation of talent or ability. I could, and might yet, discuss
the problem of finding a job or discuss all the employers who have gouged me in the
forehead with a ten foot pole, but instead this is one of those moments I choose to be
philosophical rather than kicking the dead dog effigy of myself on the occasion of its
corpse. See, Joseph Campbell once declared: "There is no meaning to life. We bring
meaning to it." Artists wouldn't have the reputation for drinking and depression, and
being generally disagreeable if it weren't for the heights to which they aspire and fail to
scale. I am convinced that the struggle of writing is the writer's struggle for
existence--proof that our lives are not just insubstantial wisps of consciousness.

Consider that truism of Descartes, I think therefore I am but if that's true what
about the times when my mind is on the blink? When I can't remember my best friend's
name or I call the next door neighbor Mr. Eaton instead of Mr. Coe? How real or less real
do we become in those moments we love someone intensely, emotionally, overcome with
this stuff of feeling? Or consider those moments when we wander into the kitchen and
forget why we are standing there on the cold tile floor with mouth agape? Did we forget
to dream the dream of ourselves intensely enough? Afterall, what if the death of
consciousness is just a failure of will?

My favorite artist is Vincent Van Gogh. I don't care if you pronounce it, van-go or
if you prefer to sound like are a coughing up a hair ball when you say the artist's name.
As an Impressionist, or anyone engaged in the act of becoming an artist, Van Gogh's
work is not perfect in form, but there's a raw emotion to it that you cannot deny when you
look at his work. At the art museum in St. Louis they have some of his works and though
they aren't large pieces I'm amazed by the vitality of the brushwork. His life was one of
extremes in his decisions, his passions, and his art. The life of artists and writers have
always fascinated me and Van Gogh is one of those high priests of art. He paid his dues
in failure and was never rewarded during his life--it's only after his death that the world
has genuflected to his genius. He once wrote to his brother and benefactor Theo: "Well,
my own work, I am risking my life for it and my reason has half foundered." I don't
compare myself to Van Gogh or any artist or writer, but I can take some comfort in that I
share the same struggle and the same fear of ultimate failure. Has the time I've spent
answering the muse been wasted?

So, you have to write all this stuff and throw it away and fail and fail and fail and
keep going, until you finally succeed. That's the only thing that's going to solve
it, make you feel right, if you really want it. But its tough, and its lonely, and
you've got to spend a lot of time in a room by yourself.
--Larry Brown, interview with Charles Blanchard

III. One of my favorite writers is Mississippi's own Larry Brown. In interviews
he discusses time and again his failure as a writer. Rather than discuss his awards and
accolades he received he seemed to prefer to talk about his suffering as if maybe that
made his success more legitimate. He talks about all the times his story "Old Frank and
Jesus" was rejected. It causes me to think of the film, Big Bad Love, based on Brown's
book of stories of the same name. Leon Barlow, brilliantly portrayed by Arliss Howard,
writes a letter to an agent, "Dear Motherfucker" it begins.

Gary Hawkins' documentary Rough South of Larry Brown is a meditation on
failure. Brown and his wife Mary Annie talk about all the jobs Brown had, even after he
had made the decision to write, and they both seem to revel in the struggle. In his
characteristic candor, Brown is asked about the reception of one of his more experimental
stories: It wasn't received worth a shit. There's no fanciful regret being expressed there
just the way it is when you have to deal with something you don't want to have to face. I
have a quote from Larry Brown taped on my writing desk that's inspired me a more than
a few times, "You must keep on in the face of failure in the hopes that there will be
success down the road. But there is no guarantee, it's an act of faith."

I think some friends and other people that know me are sometimes surprised that I
write the kind of stuff I do. I may be seen as well on my way to becoming an ivory tower
academic. But on the inside, where it counts, my own upbringing was full of turmoil as
far as us moving around went. We lived with aunts and uncles and their kids at times, or
my mom might be living with a female friend or a boyfriend. Literally every few months
we moved. My memories of growing up are not of one particular place that I call home.
There's no ancestral land I can claim or a tract of land or an old house, and I guess that
sense of place that we see in southern writing or regional writing calls to me. I realize I
never had that with my extended family and never will now. It definitely left a mark on
how I view people. I am suspicious of them and totally fascinated all at the same time.
When I was a kid I went for about a year where I barely spoke to anyone, this might have
been about eighth and ninth grade, mainly because I was emotionally exhausted with all
these new situations to adjust to. Now, if it doesn't seem normal--the way I've always
lived--it doesn't seem abnormal either. But when I look at my own kids I hope I don't
infect them with the same disease. The disease of moving, of feeling alienated from
everything most people take for granted. I want my kids to take things for granted like
where they're from and who their people are. For better or worse.

I do not like it here or there. I do not like it anywhere.
-Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham

IV. I ain't going to Grant's farm anymore: Earlier in the summer my wife and I
took our kids, Claira and Finn, to Grant's farm in St. Louis. We've been married for
seventeen years and I always like to see people freak just a little when we tell them. I'm
about to turn forty and folks tend to think we're still in our twenties. How old was Grant
when he settled here I wonder? How Ullyses S.Grant, famous Civil War general and U.S.
President, ended up in St. Louis I'm not sure now. I remember years ago reading some
pages from his journals. Grant was a failure in business, and a clerk in his father's leather
store in Galena, Illinois before the Civil War got underway. If it hadn't been for the War
it's hard not to wonder what would have become of a man who had a fairly
undistinguished career in the military and in his private life. Grant's failure, and maybe
the fact that he started his Civil War career in Missouri, give me some inspiration I don't
mind saying. My good friend, writer Eli Hastings, claims to be somehow related to U.S.
Grant which is a non-sequitor I know, but still another interesting detail to consider.
In the 1850s, Grant bought 281 acres and farmed some of it. It's billed as the
ancestral home of the Busch family. It's been a tourist attraction for some fifty years now
here in Missouri. The farm is owned and operated by Anheuser-Busch, Inc.--the beer
people who bring us all the Budweiser we can drink! I can only vaguely remember going
there as a child with my mother when I was a little older than Claira is now. The farm
sells plenty of beer to parents in what looks like a little section of a German beer garden.
It was fairly hot the day we drove east on I-70 until we hit 40-64. The traffic
bottle necks at 270 and 170 with the on ramps running north and south. Traffic isn't so
terrible there really. I've seen much worse, but it's one of those days where people are
driving so aggressively they create their own problems. They drive straight into

A black Volvo whips around us and proceeds to tail gate; pass, tail gate; pass, and
I see a black man driving an SUV who lauches a casette out of his window at the Volvo
and it bounces off the passenger door. Another car, a neon green color, looks like it might
have been in one of the Fast and Furious films, passes in the far right doing at least ninety
miles an hour. I'm relieved I don't live in St. Louis and I worry about Cassie and the kids
more than myself.

As we pull in the parking lot at Grant's farm and find a place to park close to the
stables, for the famous Clydesdale horses that you used to see in the Budweiser
commercials. Claira is saying she wants to tell Grant something when we run into him
later on in the day. She's positive she will see him. Afterall, it is his farm. It only makes
sense that we will see Grant at some point. It's one of those moments you don't realize
you're about to commit a breach of contract as far as sensitivity in fatherdom goes. I'm
distracted and worrying if we parked in the right place or not? Why won't the trunk latch
in the floorboard work right? How damn hot is it going to get? When I get out and open
the back door I have to move Claira's Plue-blankee to get the clasps on her seat (her
blanket is predominantly blue with Winnie the Pooh characters on it) which she promptly
pulls around her again.

I don't understand the first part, but Claira says something about telling
Grant_______. What it is I'm not sure. Now, I've managed to open the trunk and hauled
out the stroller for Finn. We haven't had this particular stroller very long and why they
make these things so strangely it's hard to say? Getting the things to unfold isn't so
difficult, but breaking it down will be a problem later I can already foresee. These
strollers are probably advertised as new ergonomic design which might as well be latin
for a pain in the ass to figure out and Claira says, Daddy to get my attention.

What is it, sweetie? Once again, she says very quietly (though she's not always so
quiet) that she wants to tell Grant _______. In my brusque way, hoping to be informative
as well, I tell her it's kind of complicated but Grant lived here a long time ago. He's no
longer alive. He is, in fact, well,--dead. Okay, I admit, a good parent probably shouldn't
talk to a four-year-old like an adult. In my defense, she's an exceptionally smart four year
old, but still she's a baby. To my credit I do not try to explain that the beer people bought
the place, et cetera. Her eyes are scrunched up tight as she looks up at me, the sun is so
intense it almost fades out the other colors in this parking lot where all the chrome
bumpers are reflecting the heat from a thousand suns. She nods. That's all right, her nod
seems to say. She says, "I'll tell Grant's wife__________."

I often wonder if I'm not going deaf or if I'm just losing the ability to concentrate
on what anyone is saying to me anymore. Maybe I already have the old dad's disease.
You know the disease I'm talking about? It's the same one all the dad's had when we were
kids and you would go over to a friend's house and his dad would be sitting in his easy
chair, wife hollering something from the direction of the kitchen, and he would either
feign being asleep or unable to hear or just completely out of it, or engrossed in the
sport's section of the newspaper. A mild form of mental retardation that madras short and
black sock wearing dad's tend to develop over time.

You see what I mean? I'll tell Grant's wife. How does she think of this stuff? I
think, brilliant, but then I tell her. Well, Grant's wife is dead too or something insensitive
like that. Her eyes are wide now. Her face pale (it's always pale though) and she starts to
cry. Not just cry, but wailing now. Do you want to go back home? I ask. She nods, yes.
I'm determined to make this worse if possible. Oh shit, I say under my breath.

"You lie to her about everything," my wife sticks her head up so I can see her
over the car's hood. She probably wants to make sure I hear her so she over does it with
the exaggerated mouth thing people do for the hard of hearing. She would probably start
American sign language now if she knew how to do it. It wouldn't surprise me in the least
if she did and then what excuse would I have? "And this you choose to tell her the truth

"You're right," I say. "Absolutley right." Most dads know it's best to know when
to admit defeat. It's only when you're young and single, or young and married but still
without children, that it seems to make sense to argue when you know you're wrong.
Claira is howling now. There will be no consoling her. What, I ask myself, could I
possible bribe her with? People are looking at us as they walk past us no doubt on their
way to the Clydesdale's stables or to get their picture taken with one of the horses in a
little barn especially made for tourists to get their picture taken on the other side of a red
rope of the variety you see at movie premieres. I wonder who thinks it's a good idea to
get your picture taken with one of the Budweiser Clydesdale's anyway? Unless it's done
ironically, right? And there are far too many people having their picture taken with this
particular horse for there to be anything ironic about it--it's actually a quite popular thing
to do. Do they give you a large framed picture with the horse and yourself--and if so
where is an appropriate place to hang it? Or, maybe you buy wallet-size pictures to show
the folks back in the office or the plant or wherever you work. Yourself, with the kids,
and a Clydesdale? Is the horse just standing there or is it posed somehow? It seems like I
read you could have calendar made with these pictures. Maybe men are asked to pose
holding German beer stines . . . I'm still not sure I understand the allure . . .

Claira is still crying. My wife is glaring at me. Why did we come here? I'm
wondering this now, like you do. Why was I born? Why did I have children? And what is
my purpose in life? God did not intend for me to go to Grant's farm I'm all but convinced
of this fact. Now Cassie tries, "Do you want to go home?" Yep, I think she said it too.
Since I'm not exactly sure if she said it or not so I probably shouldn't put it in quotations,
but I'm sure I'll pay if she didn't say it. Claira cries the righteous cry of wronged children

"I want to go home," Claira says.

"Well," I say. I tend to sound a lot like former President and cracker-jack actor,
Ronald Reagan these days. "We can't go home. We just got here. Quit crying." Telling a
child to quit crying is a good way to insure they will continue crying much longer than
they would have if you hadn't said anything at all. "Besides, don't you want to see all the

"No," she says. "Grant is dead."

"Well," I did it again. "I'll let you in on something. I was mistaken. Grant and his
wife are still alive. In fact, we will drive right by his house later. Then, you can tell Mr.
and Mrs. Grant anything you want. Okay?"

She nods but it takes at least an hour before my girl can pull herself together.
What must she be thinking. Her father telling her people had died--what a sick man! We
do drive by, in a kind of safari park vehicle, Grant's house. A pretty primitive place
definitely just post Civil War era. I can almost see him leaning against the house drinking
whiskey with a grim expression on his face. As we pass by in our little convoy sprinklers
water Grant's grass and house. It seems like that would destroy the house after awhile, but
the Busch folks probably know what they're doing. I point out the Oreo cookie cow to
Claira. We talk about trying to dip into a glass of milk, but in Claira's case it would have
to be soy milk, but that's another story.

A few days later we're back in Columbia. We're heading toward downtown and
drive by the new public library and Grant's elementary school. Suddenly, I'm inspired.
"Claira, look, do you remember we went to Grant's farm?" I see her reflection nod in the
rearview mirror. "Well, that's Grant's elementary school." She makes a sound in her
throat like she's calling bullshit on me. "No, really, it is." I look at Cassie and we laugh
together. A four year old shouldn't be so jaded.

I wonder if Claira might end up being a writer someday. Once I asked her what
she wanted to be when she grows up and without any prompting she said, "A doctor."
What kind of doctor? I asked. "An allergy doctor, but I won't take any blood." She has
these terrible food allergies that she's had since she was a baby. When I look back on her
baby pictures it is obvious how sick she was with the dark circles under her watering
eyes. We would take her to Cape Fear Pediatrics and they seemed mystified. One of the
doctor's always wore a bowtie and no matter what problem Claira seemed to be having he
would take out his PDA and start typing out formulas for prescriptions. Or, he might have
been text-messaging friends now that I look back on it.

We used to take Claira to the doctor together as often as we could. We had that
parent's first child problem going on. We were also older parents, I was 35 when Claira
was born, and we worried ourselves sick over her. Actually, I think I was sick every time
my daughter was sick during that first year, but looking back on it now it must have been
a sympathetic sickness since her problems were mainly food related. Some fathers-to-be
have sympathetic morning sickness so I guess I was having sympathetic allergy
symptoms. She also had roto-viruses and things that I have effectively blocked from my
conscious mind. One time we went to the pediatrician's office a doctor and a nurse asked
us who had seen Claira last. I told them I couldn't remember his name, but he wore a
bow-tie. Without missing a beat they both looked at one another, "Bow-tie man?" We
couldn't help laughing then.

Finally, they did start testing for food allergies. We knew she couldn't have milk
or anything with milk in it. We had yet to realize how many products have milk in them
or some form of milk. She would be nearly four years old before we realized the width
and breadth of her food allergies. It was a topic of conversation everywhere we went. I
worried that people might question our sanity after awhile. My wife began having the
allergy conversation with her mother and my mother everytime we saw them. I knew
they had to be sick of hearing it by now. Cassie's mother has been a nurse for probably
thirty years and still she sometimes asks, "Can't Claira have some milk or pancakes or
something with milk despite how many times we have bored her with the topic.
It's hard for folks to remember, especially when they're not living with the child.
Sometimes the effects don't take hold immediately so then we do seem like the crazy
people who don't know what they're talking about. Singular seems to help control it a
little. Sometimes the girl will come back from a couple of days at grandma's rolling in the
floor holding her stomach. I recently saw the Bruce Willis movie, I See Dead People, and
that terrible scene where the father watches the tape showing that his wife poisoned her
own daughter. It's a horrifying scene.

I don't hope that Claira isn't a writer, but I do hope she becomes a doctor. It's not
that I worry about her being a writer as much as I worry about her being a failed writer
like myself. But then I remind myself that she's much smarter than I am. She will have a
great future no matter what she chooses to do.

The Writer's duty is to keep on writing.
--William Styron

V. Margaret Atwood referred to her career in writing as working in the
wordmines. I should say I did not start off wanting to be a writer--that is to say--I was not
a born writer. I started off, at least from what I remember, just wanting to be loved. If I
were trying to be honest with myself I would say I kept hoping to understand--not
everything--but something that would add value to my life. Flannery O'Connor rails
against eliminating the mystery of life and fiction. She says the "proper study of a novel
should be contemplation of the mystery embodied in it . . ." She seems to be talking not
so much as the profound Catholic writer she was, but almost more as a gnostic exhorting
the novice to contribute something new to the mystery rather than simply obeying the
letter of the law. But with all her profundity--how does this help me as a writer? Each
writer must ask themselves what mystery they are interested in devoting their time to.
Notice, I don't say life but rather I say time.

As an undergraduate I was lucky enough to study under a very talented writer,
Michael Pritchett, who told me that he thought writers should write from their continent.
Now, I'm not exactly sure if he came up with this term or picked it up from a mentor at
Warren Wilson, but I understand it to mean that you write about those topics that most
obsess you. There's an inherent distinction from writing what you know--it's what are you
so compelled to write about it that you must say it and continue to say it until you've
finally gotten it right, or the show closes on that particular narrative.

Margaret Atwood also likens the writing life to being lost in a dark wood and
cites the infamous opening lines of Dante's Inferno where Dante imagines himself on a
quest to find paradise where he is later joined by the poet Virgil who was quite familiar
with the underworld an artist must pass through. I'm always fascinated with the part of
the story where this dynamic duo make their way to hell and the presence of Lucifer
himself freezing the great lake with the flapping of his multiple sets of wings where the
bodies of sinners frozen, half-in and half-out, or completely submerged in the ice
depending on their level of sin.

It's difficult for me to consider the person of Satan at the moment, under the harsh
florescent lighting in my leaky basement, and consider his reality. It's not that I don't
believe in evil per se. It's easy to think that perhaps people created the figure of Satan so
they could justify their own terrible deeds with a convenient entity to blame it all on. The
Devil made me do it is the authority of last resort in our culture now.

Recently I taught a world literature class. It was a summer class. Among other
things we read the excerpt I mentioned earlier. The student who was probably about my
own age mentioned that she found it very difficult to read this stuff. She just didn't
understand why we should have to read such terrible things. It didn't take long before I
realized that she didn't necessarily think the Inferno was bad, but due to her background it
was a difficult to read. Finally, I couldn't beat around the bush any longer and asked her
what she meant. Well, she explained somewhat reluctantly, I was raised by Satanists! I
thought I'd heard every reason and justification for why a student thought they should be
exempt from reading a work until this particular student. I'm not sure what would top
that, but the head of our evening program stood in for a hypothetical student and revealed
the answer, I am a Satanist! In my view an argument could be made for what Joseph Campbell
would have referred to as confusing the literal and the allegorical in one's religious views.
In the book of Revelation Christ is referred to as the morning star, but in Isaiah we're
given to understand that Lucifer is called the son of the morning star. Don't
misunderstand me. I'm not saying god and the devil are one. What I am saying that this
represents a perfect balance of what seems to be inbred in our DNA: big evil; great good.
If I were to explain to someone the negative side of the writing life it could be
equated to being frozen, ineffectual, in this antithesis of creativity. According to the logic
of the Inferno, the souls in Purgatory are doomed to spend thirty years for each year of
their earthly life before being allowed to move on to Paradise if memory serves here.
How long should a writer labor in the wordmines before he turns his back on it?
Even when Virgil attempts to lead Dante out, they have to crawl down the hairy
body of Lucifer who seems more like an ineffectual automaton chomping on the bodies
of the great traitors in three mouths. It is this separation from God that is most clear in the
lives of the traitors of the underworld, but for the artist it must be separation from self.
Coming out of Underworld--this resurrection is the lesson of myths if we can reduce it
down to something as easily expressed. Personal resurrection is always the hope--the
religious epiphany we hold out for.

The failure to integrate self and subject matter or as Alan Watts once put it
writing about Buddhism, You are it. The failure to realize this central fact of the writer's
life. Not announced with egotism, but with the tranquility and belief of a spiritual pilgrim
who has never quite achieved, or the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who has foregone
enlightenment in order to help others attain it. And yet I find myself slipping between
attainment of Truth and the imperfect execution of it just like any flawed human being.
These are the highs and lows. It is as if the writer were bipolar. Terribly manic, seeing
visions, hopped up on dramatic questions; simultaneously destroyed by self-doubt.

I see this doubt even in my students who I attempt to view with as much
compassion as possible. This particular semester I am teaching two sections of
composition at the University of Missouri where the new head of composition and
rhetoric recently informed me that in his field they have been taught to despise fiction
writers I suppose for stealing their thunder. I didn't know exactly how to respond to this
except to say that in my ignorance I have never spent much time giving any thought to
rhetoric he believes is indispensable to teaching English 1000.

So I have these two sections of comp set up to read southern fiction and write
about it. I call it "Grit Lit Composition." I may never teach there again, but this semester
it's been great fun although the challenge for my students is still just as great as any
subject I could have thrown at them. They must still write papers about a subject most of
them know very little about. The new director of composition does not believe that
fiction engages the culture in any way that merits discussion I suppose, but one of the
first papers I required is for my students to write about social alienation in the stories
we've read. The problem is that many of students either because of their youth, social
strata they've inherited, or chronic business with their lives, have had difficulty with the
subject and seem to confuse it with mere isolation. They understand the distinction, but
can't quite grasp how to articulate the difference or that the difference is worth the effort
perhaps. I struggle to help them get beyond mere summary. I'm finding this position of
writing about cultural identity in freshman composition is a ubiquitous theory.

VI. The Problem of Writer in a Border State: In relation to Southern writing
we always hear about writers who were surrounded by compulsive storytellers. However,
much to my relief another thing Atwood says, "A good many writers have had isolated
childhoods" in Orientation: Who Do you Think You Are? Once again, I go back to this
motif that writers are creating reality for themselves. The rootedness of family and place
in regional fiction (which I say without a hint of a sneer, only respect) is something I'm
completely fascinated by and jealous of writers who have this in their back pocket. I
always get the impression that some writers must apologize for it even in Faulkner's
famous postage stamp of native soil quote where he explains that he discovered his
mythical Yoknapatawpha, based on Oxford and Jefferson County, Mississippi, was worth
writing about. But if my own family is fairly rooted to the Kingdom of Callaway County
in Missouri on my mother's side--I have always felt alienated by time and geography
growing up.

Writers who are any good do not stay in Missouri. T.S. Eliot left to become
British. Tennessee Williams at least set one of his greatest dramas in St. Louis. Writer
Mark Winegardner once wrote about University's and their offerings to study Southern
literature, but the idea of studying midwestern literature seems all but preposterous. My
home state of Missouri--I'll spot you Mark Twain--seems to despise her literary writers.
They have to move away to find an audience or change the name of the town they're
writing about or become New Yorkers like Jonathan Franzen. One of my favorite writers
is West Plains resident Daniel Woodrell who seems to grow in stature every year as an
artist and yet most Missourians have never heard of him.

Growing up I attended at least thirteen different schools between Kindergarten
and high school. Often folks ask me if my family was in the military. I've tried to answer
that question with something that at least approximates the truth by saying that, 'Well, my
mom was a hippie." Except she wasn't really a hippie, but the distinction could be that
she was a child of the times.

If asked where I'm from or about my hometown I'm really at a loss. I grew up all
over Missouri, but mostly mid-Missouri, but many times I came from home school to
find we were going to move soon if not that same day. We loaded up the car: my mom's
Nova or Imperial or a Ford, whatever she was driving at the moment, and off we went out
to Arizona, California, Nebraska, or Colorado. There were times we'd just move across
town too. How many towns I can't remember.

My mother's obsession, a compulsive idealism that things would be better if we
only moved, the country's love affair with makeovers or bootstrap tugging at work. It isn't
hard to imagine that I also caught this virus so that not only do I not have a hometown,
but I feel more comfortable with the idea of moving than staying put. Things could be
better I think. I can be someone new. I can recreate myself in a newer, shiny image, and
find what it is that I can't quite define.

It's a compulsion so deeply ingrained in me, as it had been in her childhood too,
that I haven't been able to shake it. It was like trying to change the direction of the wood
grain in a coffee table. A result of all this manic travel is that I became about as far
removed from all my extended family as it was possible to be except for a few exceptions
that I might write about later. It's like the old stories that start "Once upon a time . . ."
Starting over but never getting to the middle, or getting to the middle of a story brimming
over with conflict but instead of catharsis, we fled or were dumped over by mother's
boyfriends, husbands, friends, relatives, and always we had with us in the story of our
lives, "Once upon a time . . ." as a reset, a choose your own adventure, a way to forestall
regret and dashed dreams.

Perhaps it was this narrative dysfunction that called to me to write. Often writers
are asked about when they knew they wanted to be writers. What was the defining
moment? Was there a particular writer or work that decided it? Well, I can only say that
there must a many of these moments or at least there was for me even if I admit to being
a hack. I remember one of my own mentors, Clyde Edgerton, talks about May 14, 1978
when he saw Eudora Welty reading from "Why I Live at the P.O." on PBS. For me there
must be a series of these moments from childhood that now seem to me to be impossible
that they could have all happened in only one childhood.

VII. Under the influence of the Holy Ghost: During the mid-1970s I lived with
my great aunt and uncle who had three other children who became like brothers and
sisters to me. My great uncle Russell Salmons as a cook at a truck stop called Gasper's in
Kingdom City, Missouri. He also felt he had been called by God to become a preacher
who believed in being born again, speaking in tongues, and in signs and wonders. Now, I
won't try to explain it all here, but he was inspired by a charismatic preacher with a
background in the Holiness movement who everyone called Brother Frank.
My uncle was in the process of becoming a lay preacher as I understand it now,
but there was no mother church. Brother Frank's church, as I remember it, grew out of
meetings from a place that had once been a coffee shop, and then they became a more
formal church with a Christian school called The Christian Center Academy with a
curriculum based on the Baptist school system that used little booklets on every subject
called the P.A.C.E. system.

And what I learned there of great importance for a writer was a clear
fundamentalist vision of the stories of the Bible. Not only as stories, mere literature, but
as flowing from a supernatural source. The people of these stories had not just lived
thousands of years ago, but the importance of what they had done invigorated the church
into the eternal present.

It would be hard to underestimate the importance of this religious training in my
background. I regularly watched folks complaining of sickness and cancer who went up
front to receive prayer. Everyone would have their hands in the air, raise-the-roof style,
speaking in tongues, or little ecstatic exhortations. The entire congregation which back
then was probably a bit over a hundred and fifty souls would crowd around the one
person and lay hands on them. Those of us who couldn't physically touch the person
needing prayer would put our hands on the arm or shoulder of the person in front of us so
the power of faith and the Holy Ghost could pass through like an electrical current of
supernatural healing. Oh, yes, and sometimes folks were overcome by the Holy Ghost
and fell in the floor--slain in the spirit! There she goes, a deacon might say. Somebody
catch her, would come the response. The men would lay those who had been overcome
by the spirit on the floor like God junkies. I often wondered as a boy what it was like.
Were they in the presence of God? I tried to imagine it. I was always thinking about those
amazing descriptions in Ezekiel. We were a church concerned with the last days! Jesus
would appear in the eastern sky any moment! And we were all ready!

VIII. In my classes at MU, we read Lee Smith's story Tongues of Fire and what
is significant about it to me is not that Karen speaks in tongues, but that she so easily
turns away from, an adolescent interest in Asian religions, when for me it was a way of
life for years. One of my students, from Atlanta, told me he found an article that
discussed how the poor tended toward fundamentalism while the rich tended toward the
more mainline denominations. We know which denominations are marked by the pocket
book or social status so why go into it here, but I also felt obligated to tell him about the
unbridled emotion of a charismatic service and the utter reality of interacting with God in
such a service as compared to the more sedate branches. If God does exist, then what
kind of interaction would you want to have with him, I asked rhetorically. For awhile I
considered following in my uncle's footsteps in the ministry. I even attended a Bible college in Southern Missouri for a year, but that was the year I had an extraordinary
English teacher who asked us to read stories by Flannery O'Connor. After I read Wise
Blood I was hooked and had a new calling that I couldn't say no to. It was a calling that
had already struck once when I was much younger.

My friend David Gessner published a piece in the Oxford American, The Dreamer
Did Not Exist, and he eloquently discusses his childhood feeling that he, and the world,
did not exist. "A sudden and overpowering sense that there was nothing in the world and,
more importantly, that I didn't exist," Gessner writes. I never doubted my own existence,
but I had an obsession on a variation of that theme. From a very young age I had this
overpowering paranoid feeling that I was being watched. It's similar to that feeling you
get when you know someone is staring at you and turn to catch someone actually looking
at you. Well, I was convinced I was being watched. Any mirror was probably a two-way
mirror in my view. Men in white lab coats were making notations hunched over
clipboards no doubt. They (whoever they are I'm not sure) were actually causing all the
strange events of childhood to see how I might react to them. I still have this feeling at
times that this is, in fact, happening, but I somehow have managed to keep it under
control. I wonder if this is common thought? So when I read 1984 by George Orwell the
book really resonated with me on the level of I know what it means to be watched too,

I don't obsess over the feeling like I did when I was a teenager at that awkward
age when you have the mistaken impression that people are more interested in you than
they actually are. It's something that naturally fades, because we are obsessed with
ourselves in a necessary way when we're teenagers and trying to figure out how we might
fit into everything or how everything fits into us. But the next thought that has begun to
obsess me, since I keep repeating the word, is this notion of ritual, and apotheosis. How
do we wring more from life. Nearing forty my body and my mind are not what they were.
Eventually, if not some years back, it's for the worse. I don't have energy I had. My body
does not look like it did. Damn! And my looks are not what they once were, but I'm
beginning to care less and less about it. I mourn it less, I guess is this best way I can put
it. So, how does one become immortal?

When I was young I thought I most likely would not age. I'm not sure I really
accepted the idea of death. Writing itself is a way to keep living. To write is to defy death
with little black smudges on white paper serving as something like the cave drawings of
early man recording a successful hunt. I consider the idea the Greek heroes had about
immortality. They wanted to do great deeds that the bards would sing about and thus keep
them alive in the memories of the living. They memorized their works, these epic poems,
and passed them on. I read once where one scholar said Homer may have been an office,
a position, a post if you will, rather than one man. What it translates into now is being a
writer. From there, I guess it's a pretty easy comparison today to being one of the bards.
Writers make their characters, their people, immortal by writing about them. I remember
Allan Gurganus urging me to mythologize my characters--to raise them above the level
of mere men.

Writers often talk about what hard work the act is. I can't say I disagree either, but
there's also something thrilling in the act that I don't hear discussed much. When I write
and really begin to imagine these fictional people of mine and things are really working
in my mind--it's just incredible. It's the sublime in art we've read about. The place where
writer's can go in their mind to envision their work, it's John Keat's Penetralium. Of
course, just because we can see the scenes happening in a cerebral way doesn't mean it
will work on the page, but it helps. This creativity, the act of writing, is the
spark-evidence of divinity I think and it's stronger than any narcotic.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Midwestern Gothic Interview

I just wanted to share this interview that Midwestern Gothic did with a follow up to my story "The Mail Order Jesus" that they published in the Spring.

Friday, May 18, 2012

New Publications

Since my last post I've had a story recognized as a Finalist in Glimmer Train, a story called FEVER forthcoming in The Oklahoma Review, and THE MAIL ORDER JESUS accepted in Midwestern Gothic.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Story Selected for Yemassee's William Richey Short Fiction Contest

My story "Bring Your Sorrow Over Here" was selected as runner-up in Yemassee's William Richey Short Fiction Contest by Judge George Singleton. The story will appear in the Spring 2012 issue.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is This the Future I was Hoping for?

If you’re like me it’s difficult to find yourself in the moment. How do you keep yourself from sliding into the past or worrying about the future to the point of distraction. Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And the older I get the more true that line seems to become. Everything that happened in the past has left an indelible scar on the personal timeline, yours and mine. When I was very young I used to think of it in terms of the good and bad that had been done to me, but now this exercise of self-examination has been turned on its head to include the things I have said and done and often, usually, what I find there is not so noble.

What’s wrong with now? It is a cold afternoon in January. I let the dog in. I hear her nails clicking as she leaps across the floor in little joyful skips. She licks my hand when I stop petting her. There is that rank dog smell that reminds me when it warms up again that she will need a bath. I sip my lukewarm coffee. It’s Folgers, nothing fancy, but it’s good and has all the good qualities of familiarity. The furnace has kicked on. All is well. For the moment.

See this is when it gets tricky. What Natalie Goldberg called “monkey mind” takes over. Distractions enter the picture. Anxiety begins to rage at the feet of expectation. How long before I find a job again? Will I teach again? And when I do will there be any real content beyond busy work and merely satisfying course objectives which I believe comes from the instructor more than the best planned syllabus. When will I finally write that narrative, story or novel, that will be everything I hope it will be and what others will also recognize? Will I be big enough to be the kind of father I should be to my kids? Will I ever be the kind of man my wife expects me to be? Will I run out of time? God, I hope not.

So when I look into the past I see a blurred vision; in the future there’s a warped reflection of the past made into flesh. The cardinal I saw flittering from branch to branch of the cherry tree in my backyard like a bloody teardrop looks like every red bird I’ve ever seen as if it had been reborn again and again or made of papier-mâché and animated by some alien force for an ulterior motive I may never fully apprehend.

If I sometimes struggle with the words, thoughts, and deeds of others and even more myself I know I have to have some faith in the struggle itself. Count this intention as equal parts obedience and faith. I can change. I can evolve. Emerson wrote about this idea of expansion of circles in life, “If the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over the boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with intent again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to intense and innumerable expansions.”

Inside me always is a boy who felt abandoned at times. There was a time my father had a new wife and son. My mother was searching for herself out west while I lived with family here in Missouri. The timeline of my childhood is so tangled with comings and goings that I can’t even put it in order now. I remember longing for my mother with an intensity that sometimes we fail to give children credit for. I remember certain family members that might by definition be considered distant becoming the people that mattered to me. Hard times breeds a closeness unlike other experiences.

We moved around the country, within the state, and back and forth in some of those towns. I remember watching my mentally handicapped brother standing in a green playpen leaning against the side for balance because one of his legs was a bit lame from birth as he hit one birdlike hand with another as if he were punishing that hand for its sin while a Jacob’s ladder of light poured in the living room window illuminating him as if he were a saint. I had this notion that one day I’d be able to communicate with him telepathically someday and have a normal brother. I used to look into his eyes and speak to him in my mind while he chanted his childish “mummumumum.” I remember later we had to take him to the hospital in Sedalia where they could take care of him better when he was about six years old. I thought he’d always be with us. We would visit him in institutions across the state as the years went by. I always wondered why I was so lucky to be normal and why this had happened.

I remember my great uncle who was a cook at Gasper’s truck stop who decided to become a charismatic lay minister in the seventies. He would often take us all, my aunt, and two of my cousins to nursing homes around the state where we would have church services for them. Sheila played the piano and we sang The Old Rugged Cross and In the Garden.

The sound of my aunt’s incredibly high voice. The dutiful expression of Sheila’s face as she played the upright. The incredible glow my younger cousin Bryan had at age four wishing so hard that he would no longer have to endure being the youngest--and most loved. When we pestered him too much Aunt Vivian would always say, “Leave that baby alone.” I said, “He’s not a baby, he’s four years old.” She said matter-of-factly, “Well, he’s my baby!”

The faces of the elderly lighting up when my uncle would tell us at a certain point in the service to walk through the audience and they would touch us with their feeble hands with an inexpressible joy as if we were performing miracles just by the power of our youth. It was the hand of the woman with the issue of blood who reached out to touch Christ for healing.

I suppose what I was searching for was family. The feeling of not quite belonging has been like a stain that I thought everyone else could see. It was hard not to feel like an intruder into other people’s lives. This feeling became a reality. I embraced this idea that I was some sort of rebel. I withdrew. I lost the ability for a time to connect with people. This problem sometimes rears its ugly head every so often. I become the angry kid who retreated into silence and became an observer and wanted to avoid the pain of being seen. I tried to avoid showing my emotions so that no one could criticize my sorrow or anger. I kept those things hidden. It was what we did then. I worry that though I have some measure of control of things now that I give myself too much leeway to the other direction now. But this feeling of not belonging, wishing I belonged persisted. Emotionally and intellectually this thought had become an unseen reality—a trench, an open wound, that would not allow me to navigate life without embracing this truth which had somewhere along the way become a lie. It was an untruth I was not ready to surrender. I was incapable of giving it up. It was the narrative I’d used to define myself by. If it wasn’t true anymore then I’m not sure I’d recognize myself.

I touch my wife’s shoulder in bed. The bedroom door opens and our daughter comes in complaining about a nightmare. She spoons up to Cassie. My four year old, Finn, hears us murmuring and comes in full of life and clambers on top of the mountain of family and lies across Cassie and me with a blissful smile on his face. I realize both of these children are remarkable in their own way. My daughter is the mercurial and sometimes mischievous rebel without a cause. My son already has the charisma of any ten men I know and I sometimes think must be bound to be both popular and loved. The four of us crammed together in a knot. I understand something for a moment. I already have something I thought I was missing. I have a family. I’m part of it. I’m still here and we do our best to love each other. One thing I’ve already achieved that no one achieved for me when I was a boy. I don’t think that the boy I was would hold it against his parents or anyone else if he could see me now. He would be envious of what I have and remind me to appreciate what he doesn’t have. Maybe this is the future I was hoping for.