Monday, March 31, 2008

A review of my story

My story "The Mad Juggler" got a review at The Fix today. Carole Ann Moleti seems to have enjoyed it. Here's the part I especially like:
Typical of magical realism, the story begins with clowns and ends with a puzzle
I'm willfully misinterpreting this (slightly) and imagining an entire genre of stories that are always required to begin with clowns. Very fun.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

When a story's done

What do you do when you've finished a story? I remember a college creative writing prof recommending we bury a story in a drawer for three months and then come back and rewrite it with fresh eyes, which isn't all that different from what I do typically. Usually once I finish the first draft, I give it a day or so and then do one quick polish of the story before posting it for peer critiques. Then I'll let it sit for a while--not always the full three months, but something like that--before I return to it for whatever revisions are necessary. Then I have both fresh eyes and the comments of critiquers.

I finished a story about a week ago...but I haven't gotten around to that second step of a rough polish and posting. Am I suddenly having a bout of over-protectiveness? Does some part of my brain recognize that the story still needs something else before I can get helpful critiques? Am I just feeling lazy about writing? I don't know, but I thought hearing what others do might be interesting and helpful.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


This article on the distant relations of the presidential candidates makes me laugh. Especially when it includes such things as tenth cousins, twice removed. My oldest brother is the one in our family who has put the most work into tracing genealogies, but I'm fascinated with them as well. Our approaches are quite different, though. What he's generally done is take a particular ancestor of ours and then trace that line forward to all the descendants alive today. I'm more interested in tracing the lines upward, finding how far back I can get on any given line (and then imagining what life must have been like for those people). Both approaches, of course, are essential for any complete genealogical survey, and for the information in this article, both were certainly used.

I don't know of any famous people I'd be related to, even distantly. Most of my ancestors came over on da boat from the Netherlands anywhere from 1890-ish through 1912. (My maternal grandfather recalled leaving port the day after they received the news that the Titanic had sunk.) My brother has traced descendants of most of these families pretty extensively, and I don't remember any famous types from there.

Because my paternal grandmother was adopted, though (by a paternal aunt and uncle who were Dutch immigrants, so we knew that side), there was one line that was a mystery until I discovered online genealogy sites back in 2000 or so. Then I was able to trace that line back to pre-Revolutionary colonies. (Pennsylvania, I think, though I'd have to double-check that to be sure--I wonder if they were Quakers? that hadn't occurred to me at the time, but they seem to have been from Shropshire, England. Anyone know enough about Quaker history to know if that makes it any more or less likely? And their descendants sided with the North in the Civil War strongly enough to name my great-great grandfather, born during the war, Joseph Union, despite living right on the line between north and south, which would fit with Quaker anti-slavery movements...) Anyway, that would seem to have more potential for getting me (distantly) related to people who have been famous in the US.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Labyrinth Inhabitant Issue 2

My story, "Canyon of Babel," actually went up on the site a couple of weeks ago, but now the complete issue 2 is up, and it looks like there was a nice confluence of the stories really working together thematically. A strain of Borges running through it all, which is fun. I'll have to check the other stories out.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

I'm related to a pirate!

Well, a fictional one... Through marriage... I'm reading Gene Wolfe's Pirate Freedom and was pleased to see there a French pirate with my wife's last name. Her dad came to Canada from the Netherlands, but a single French soldier had fled to the Netherlands some centuries ago and given his name as an inheritance. Was he a former pirate? (Probably not--family legend has him as a Hugenot soldier who fled for religious reasons.)

Random, I know. But fun.

Friday, March 21, 2008


in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles far and wee

--E. E. Cummings

Cummings is the perfect poet for this time of year. He has many poems that celebrate spring without falling into cheesiness. I love that "mud-luscious"--it perfectly conjures spring days I remember from growing up. And the little lame balloonman is also an image that just feels right for a spring day--he's later goat-footed, conjuring up images of a devil...but it's as if on a spring day like this even that doesn't matter. The world is new.

The full poem, as well as another great spring poem, [O sweet spontaneous], is at this site. Another of my favorites for this time of year is this one (taken from here):

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of allnothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

"Leaping greenly spirits of trees"--that's exactly what I love about spring.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pain = art?

Someone in my critique group brought up a quote from Kierkegaard about poetry requiring pain, and so if someone wishes you success with your art, they're essentially wishing you sorrow. It sounds sort of tongue in cheek or facetious when I write it that way, and I'm not sure if the original was meant to be or not (I've read bits and fragments of Kierkegaard, but no where near enough to know).

Another member countered that a lot of that comes from false ideas we have of certain poets (Coleridge and Keats were his examples), where we have this image of them in suffering (in opium addiction or sickbed), but most of their great poetry came in other (more pleasant) stages of their lives. And I'd add that some of that tortured artist image has been played up by certain poets and writers (Poe, for example) and by their supporters.

It is a highly romantic image that seems to resonate, even when it is simply posture. (And I've certainly run into people who try to pose as tortured souls simply because they think it's right, but that's beside the point) Why is that? Why do we seem to like that image for our artists? Do we just like the idea of benefiting from the suffering of others? Do we cling to it to hedge our bets so that when we do find ourselves to be suffering, then we can console ourselves that perhaps it will lead to great art? Is it simply a glib and shallow image left us by the romantics?

(My answer, by the way, to the original question was,
Certainly someone can create great art that rises from suffering. But it's only essential in the sense that there is suffering in life, in the world, and poetry (and other art) requires that we be in touch with life. Ignoring the suffering in the world is likely to lead to superficial and simplistic poetry (fiction, music, art, etc.), but wallowing in it or imagining that it's the suffering itself that gives birth to great art is no more likely to create anything worthwhile. It is life that gives birth to poetry, life in all its complexities and contradictions.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"The Mad Juggler" at Written Word

I just noticed that this story is now up at Written Word (I'd received an email announcement for the last few new issues, but not for this one, so I'm not sure when it went up). Go read it (for free)!

This is an old story, written for the creative writing class I took my last semester of college. I'd taken the previous fall off (I had a few more classes to take for my two majors and a minor...but also one year of eligibility left to run track, so I wanted those two to correspond). I'd written the first line, "News of the Mad Juggler's death shocked us all," during that time off from school but hadn't gotten any farther. Then I went to a camping conference (for people who work in summer camp programs, that is) and one of the keynotes was about how society teaches girls to lose their voice. So I decided to write a story from the perspective of a girl who did first at least.

It was my first time writing from a female perspective, so I remember turning it in without my name on it so everyone would read it without knowing whose it was. When it came time to discuss it, I announced, "Well, the next story was mine," and I could see shocked looks all around the room. And comments on the papers themselves even changed after they learned, which I found very interesting.

The image of the mad juggler himself I saw as a combination of an ice cream truck driver and the pied piper. In other ways he draws from my own juggling--I learned to juggle pins with sawn-off table legs that someone gave me as a gift.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A cool picture

I missed the art gallery with yesterday's new issue of Strange Horizons (did it go up later than the rest of this week's contents?), but it's there now. The artist is Damir Radic, and the work is mostly (or all) photographs that have been blended together, sometimes with a very surreal result.

Especially check out "Cityscape." I love that one--the ruins, the gigantic trees, there's a lot going on within and between each of those parts.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Does this really work?

One of the more bizarre things here in Fort Collins is the people who hold signs on street corners. Lunch specials, tax services, furniture sales--they're waving their signs, dancing to whatever music they're listening to, dressing in costumes... Businesses would occasionally hire someone to hold a sign like that in Michigan--the one that jumps to mind is Little Ceasar's when they started their $5 pizzas--but nothing like this, a constant stream of them, both in the quaint shopping district of Old Town and even out along the busy intersections away from there.

I'm just not convinced that this kind of advertising really works. It certainly never inspires me to go to the restaurant in question (which seems the most likely to work on impulse buying) and certainly not the furniture store. Is this some effort to keep otherwise idle people employed? It is sort of fun, though, to watch when someone really gets into it, moving as if to some inner music that no one but them knows anything about.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Homage, or pastiche?

A lot of people whose opinions I respect have been talking about Cordwainer Smith recently. So I checked out a collection of his stories and read "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." (It's also available online for free and I'd started reading it once, but I decided I'd rather read it from a book.)

One thing I really liked about the story was the play between what's common knowledge/urban legend for the supposed readers in a time well beyond the events described versus the real story as it happened. It was full of references to the well-known video footage, to the plays and paintings that have commemorated the scenes of the story. According to the notes in this particular collection, Smith was basing the style of the story (by which I think the editor is referring to this aspect, though as I read more of the stories here, it may become clearer what he means exactly) on certain Chinese stories.

So today I was doing a 1-hour-write challenge and started playing around with that as well, telling a story as if it was a well-known but now-mythologized event for the imaginary readers. My fear is that it will feel too much of a copy--apart from this aspect, I don't think anything else will be similar, so in that sense it will be very much my own story. If that aspect is drawn from Chinese stories, I'd love to know more about that, to read some of the originals (in translation, of course). The editor, unfortunately, doesn't give any more info on that. Anyone know more?

And...would this sound too much like a copy or pastiche to you? Or simply homage for what inspired me?

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Wiped out

I spent the morning and most of the afternoon helping some friends move. They had a lot of heavy furniture. And a lot of boxes scattered around the house they'd been renting. They were only moving about a mile away, so that made it nice to get things back and forth...but it also concentrated the heavy lifting.

So no writing done today. And even later this evening when my son is in bed...I'm not sure I'll have the energy to get any work done. Current task, if I do get to it, is really polishing up those first few pages of the novel that I hope to begin shopping to agents shortly.

Friday, March 07, 2008

A different type of solar farm

I've been fascinated with solar energy ever since high school. The one longer work I've written that's more distant future science fiction than my usual secondary world fantasy of whatever technological era (and for which I'm waiting to hear back from a publisher after a rewrite request on the final chapter) has a character who runs a solar farm. It never gets into the technological details of how they make it work, but it does play a role in the story.

So this article I find interesting. It's of a solar farm that relies on the heat of the sun rather than the light. It seems like an exciting development.

Colorado is a good place for solar panels of a more traditional sort--we get something like 340 days of sunshine here. I don't have a panel on our house. We just don't have the money to install something like that. But we do have some south-facing glass doors and a large window that I always open the curtains of right away in the morning, and so our furnace rarely runs during the day. I'm always paying attention to developments in solar panels that might make them cheaper and more efficient--it combines what I consider an obligation to care for the environment with cool new tech. So even when other energy sources have seemed more likely as the fuel of the future, I still gravitate toward solar in what catches my attention. Hopefully a combination of all these things--wind, tidal, geothermal, solar, and biomass (I'm not holding my breath on fusion, and while hydroelectric is very clean once the dam is built, in many cases there are other environmental consequences, so I'm cautious about that)--will help us stop burning fossil fuels. And my dream is that it's done in a way that's socially just, that provides further economic power to the disenfranchised rather than corporations.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Another bar book club report

Last night was our most recent meeting at the local micro-pub to discuss a book, this time Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill.

Beer of choice: there were a pair of beers that were new to me. I tried a sample of one--steam something, I forget the exact name--and liked it but decided to satisfy my curiosity by ordering the other, a Kriek Ale. I wish I'd stuck with the first. It wasn't awful, but it was very sweet, with a strong flavor of cherries. The other was quite dry and had a good flavor.

We had a good discussion about the book. I really enjoyed it a lot. It tells the story of a girl who falls into an air shaft of an abandoned mine in the Keewenaw Peninsula of Michigan. But it doesn't stay there--Ursula, the girl, is the daughter of mixed Chinese and Finnish descent, so the story hops around to her various ancestors on each side, telling intriguing, and often tragic, stories from ancient China and ancient Finland and then through the years to more recent stories in both places as well as the stories of those who immigrated to the Americas. The way it was constructed worked perfectly--each story advances the main story and includes little glimmers of things that reflect all the other stories. Music and deafness, absent fathers and doting fathers, leg injuries, faith that isn't dogmatic, falling and getting trapped, women who are strong despite injuries or loss and hardship. It all worked together so well, and most of the stories even if taken alone were very engaging. Not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did, but the general consensus of those who were there (we had a small group last night) was that it was at the very least an enjoyable book.

And I have no reservations recommending it highly. Rumor is Ms. Hill is near to finishing her second novel, so I will be keeping an eye out for that as well.

Our selections for next month included on nonfiction account that several in the group had already read as a group selection (before I'd joined)...something about an exploration to Antarctica, I believe; a book that most of us read as a group selection about 2 years ago, Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis, a hilarious spoof on secret societies that we frequently refer to in jokes (it's all explained by the Jimmerson Lag) those who weren't part of the group at the time feel unfortunately left out at times; and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which believe it or not I haven't read (nor seen Blade Runner)(nor read any PK Dick except for one or two short stories); but the one the group chose was Mornings on Horseback, which is a biography of the early life of Teddy Roosevelt.

I discovered that the local library has a free download of the audio book, so I might be giving that a try...but I tried listening to it while I was typing this blog post, and I couldn't pay attention at all to both at once. So I suspect I'll notice much more if I check out a physical copy and read it instead. But we shall see.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A pair of animal encounters

I woke up this morning to a strange sound. At first I thought my son had gotten out of bed and was playing with the little spring-doorstop. It had that kind of twinging noise, except deeper. When I was awake enough to realize that if he was awake that early, he wouldn't be playing but crying...then I realized we had a woodpecker moving around our roof to find if anything was worth his pecking. It was especially loud because nothing was--so beak on metal is not quiet. I could follow it around the roof, testing out different places. It soon left, and I'm thinking it's because it decided this wasn't a place to be, and not that it decided it would come back each morning at that same time just in case...

I just saw in the newspaper that the city is offering free flicker boxes to anyone who does have a repeated problem with them, so that'll be my next option. The neighbors at an angle through our back yard used to have a fake owl that was perched on their roof to scare the woodpeckers away, but I realize now that it's gone.

Encounter number two was a dog. Nothing special, in fact it was one of several that was behind a fence so we scarcely saw it as we walked to and from the park. But this was in a backyard that faced the playground, and the dog snarled and growled as we passed. OK, I'm not a dog person...but far as I know from friends who are, this is a failing of the owners. If you live next to a park, can't you at least train your dog so it doesn't scare the kids playing? I dislike snarling, snotty dogs, and so often when I'm walking or running down the sidewalk I'm forced to endure the growls of some poorly trained dog.

Growls and snarls are fine and good in a guard dog. But these are not houses that need guard dogs. I have to remind myself not to hate the dogs, because it's the owners who are to blame. Colorado is a dog place (especially a pair of large dogs, it seems) and that's great. But please for the sake of simple human and animal decency, train your dogs so they aren't mean.

(Self-analysis traces this to growing up in the country and remembering times of biking and being forced off the road by vicious, untied dogs. At least here the dogs are fenced in.)