Posts Tagged ‘Dead Poets Society’

A Writer’s Life Considered

January 30, 2010

A writer’s life, like any life, should be well-considered. We should take stock periodically and ask ourselves what we’re doing, where we’re going, and if we’re on course. Is there a better route we might be taking? Do we have exactly the things we need in our packs? Should we be walking faster? — slower?

A comment came in yesterday by regular contributor jhagman that encourages just such an assessment. It was written in response to my previous post, “Durbin Finishes Reading a Book!” You can read the original comment there, and I’m going to quote it here in its entirety, but the gist is that jhagman takes me to task for my slow reading speed.

Let me preface this by saying I in no way intend this as a “counterattack.” All civil, legitimate expressions of opinion are welcome here. And I’m fully aware that the commenter meant it constructively, implying that s/he’s waiting for my next book and calling me one of jhagman’s “favorite writers.” So, thank you, jhagman! I do appreciate the thoughts! I offer this post in a friendly spirit, as the self-reflection they triggered. Here’s the comment:

Fred, reading this post made me sad! I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, “It takes a half of a library to make one book.” At your rate of reading, it might be a lifetime of 100 years before we see another book! While reading ESL papers of students does constitute “reading,” unless they are like Joseph Conrad, you spend the bulk of your year not reading literature . . . ugghh! Can they pay a person enough to live like that? When I was at Fort Benning (paratrooper school) I got through two books — The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy, and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, and the school I was in was for me no picnic. If I can do it, you can do a lot better with your reading! Lecture over, but when one of my favorite writers reads a book a year. . . . Enough said.

First, jhagman, you know from this blog that I’m the first to lament my slow reading pace. Two or three times I’ve studied books on speed-reading techniques and have tried to master them, but it’s never worked out for me. Fiction is just too precious to me to zoom through without looking back. I agree with you that I should be reading more. If I knew a way to do so, I would.

But consider this: I have a friend, also a writer, who reads tons of books — book after book after book — and she feels she should be reading more. We could all be doing better. You should be reading more, jhagman! Why didn’t you read ten books in paratrooper school, you slacker? Think of all that time you have before pulling the rip cord, when you’re just twiddling your thumbs in freefall — what, may I ask, were you doing then?!  🙂 There are uncountable great stories and characters out there, waiting for us on the shelves, that will be waiting forever. We’ll never have the pleasure of most of them. We are limited creatures. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King acknowledges this. He allows himself time to read for pleasure in the evenings, but he says that at his age, he’s had to become much choosier about what he reads, because he doesn’t have time to read it all. (I “read” King’s book on cassette tape while walking, jhagman — do I get some points for that? :-))

I love the Samuel Johnson quote! — half a library to make one book. Richard Peck said, “We write by the light of every book we’ve ever read.” And Tolkien, of course: “A book like The Lord of the Rings grows like a seed in the dark, out of the leaf-mould of the mind.” Oh, I do not doubt that we become better writers the more we read.

But I would caution that that’s not everything. There was a joke (I think it was a joke) I heard about an aspiring violinist who couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t more successful, because he went to symphony concerts every night and sat in the front row. See the point? Reading books is fine — it’s necessary — it would be hard to be a concert violinist without ever having attended a concert as a listener. But sadly, there are aspiring writers who have read a hundred times more than I’ve read, but who never seem to get the pen to the paper, who never seem to finish a story of their own.

Another good friend, also a reader of this blog, once said to me that she feels she doesn’t have exceptional musical talent, but that she has the gift of truly enjoying music. Some people listen to a lot. Some people read a lot of books. Some go through whole DVD stores seeing every film that catches their interest.

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s about reading volume. There’s this famous advice to writers: “Don’t read 100 books. Instead, read your 10 favorite books 10 times each.” I don’t reach that goal, either. But when I do read a book, I digest it pretty thoroughly. I study nuances and structure, and I think about it carefully, while I’m reading and for weeks afterward. I often sigh with momentary envy at friends who are not writers, who can read without their crafter’s eye and mind automatically engaging — who can read irresponsibly, just dashing through the book. But my envy is momentary. (It’s like those times in the years we played Dungeons & Dragons, when now and then I’d want to enjoy the wild abandon of playing as a player-character, not running the show from behind the DM’s screen; so I’d beg some other member of the group to launch an original, separate campaign, and I’d play as a character for a meeting or two, swinging my sword and puzzling over riddles, finding delight in exploring the unknown — but then I couldn’t wait to get back into the DM’s seat.) In the end, what I love to do is write books. If that means the sacrifice is that I can’t read like a 12-year-old, barefoot and carefree — so be it. Heaven is coming in four or five decades at the most, and I’ll catch up on reading then. For now, I’ve got writing to do.

There was a year when I worked full-time at a Japanese company. It was ostensibly a “school,” a senmongakkou, but it was a company: the management’s only goal was extracting money from the students. Still, there were some dedicated teachers there trying to teach between a rock and a hard place, and I did my best to be one of them. That year, I was so physically and emotionally drained every day that there was no way I could write. That’s the one year I did quite a bit of reading. I read like a normal person — almost every night, and on the weekends. I finished reading quite a few books that year, and doing so was very nice — very calming and anchoring.

But it’s a tradeoff. For me, I think it’s possible either to read regularly or to write regularly. Reading is “for me” — it’s fun, and it feeds me. But writing is a calling. Writing is what leaves something behind in the world, something that I hope others may enjoy and benefit from. When I have to choose, I choose writing. Is anyone out there inclined to blame me? [Achilles: “Is there no one else?!”]

I was happy to hear Barbara Hambly at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary say that when she’s writing, she has no time to do any reading; and she’s writing constantly — has been for decades — so she confesses that her knowledge of the genre is almost entirely from the books she read in her youth. So I figure if I’ve got Garth Nix on my side regarding character creation, and Barbara Hambly on my side concerning reading, I’m not alone.

Next, about the issue of day jobs: back in college, two of my closest friends and I made a promise to one another that we would never in life work long-term at jobs “just to make money” — that whatever we set our hands to in life, it would have merit, it would be worth doing. It would somehow glorify God, use our talents, and serve humanity. Except for a very few brief transitional jobs that enabled us to get from one situation to another, all three of us have kept that oath. (And that’s by God’s grace, of course — I can see now that there was youthful idealism and impetuousness in the vow, and there are plenty of people in this world who have no control over what they must do to keep food on the table. The three of us have been blessed that we were able to keep our rash vow.)

So, no, jhagman: at the senmongakkou, they couldn’t pay me enough to not-write. Once my contract was up, I was out of there, and I had a wonderful time explaining in great detail to my bosses why I didn’t want their juicy contract renewed. I took my soul and left. But now, at Niigata University, it’s my privilege to have classes full of excellent students who are, for the most part, eager to learn. I’m able to give them something. I know now what my gifts of perception, language, sensitivity, patience, flexibility, tomfoolery, clarity of explanation, compassion, organization, and dramatic performance are for. When I’m teaching writing, I’m teaching something very dear and real to me; and when I see the students’ final drafts, I know why it’s okay that I’ve labored over their rough drafts and answered their questions.

What value, you may ask, is there in English conversation? Well, I won’t get into the usefulness of communication in English in today’s world, but I will simply say that a university classroom is an overall experience. Some of the best things I got from classes in college had little to do with the content of the courses (and some did). When I was a student, I took notes on my favorite professors’ personal stories and philosophies just as eagerly as I took notes on what we were there to study. It might be said that my college major was “Froehlich and Lettermann” with a minor in “Sorensen.”

I’d like to believe that I’m helping my students a little farther along the path of learning “how to suck all the marrow out of life” . . . helping them to figure out what it’s all about, and how best to spend their time on this spinning rock.

Can you pay a person enough to do that? Well, no. I’m glad they do pay me something, because I have to pay bills. And I’m glad I’m doing the job.

But the story doesn’t end there. A university job allows more free time and autonomy of mind and spirit than any other job I’m aware of. I was able to write The Sacred Woods — a full-blown novel — during my first semester this year. As to whether or not you’ll have wait “a lifetime of 100 years” for the next book — well, I’m writing them, but I can’t control what publishers buy. Writing the books is the only thing I have any degree of control over. (And we do know that The Star Shard is still scheduled for Fall 2011 — so put that on your calendar!)

So, jhagman, shake my hand before we go away this week: we’re friends, you’re among friends here, and your comment is well-taken. You are not wrong. I will try to do better. Let’s all try to do better, each in our own vocations. As dear Professor Lettermann said (which probably had no direct connection to the class at hand): “One of the best things about our theology is that we don’t have to be what we’ve been.”

Or, as Scarlett O’Hara says, “Tomorrow is another day.” (But that’s in some book I haven’t read.)

But at the same time, I’ll go on making the decisions I have to make. Time is limited, and as I see it, the books I’m waiting to read are friends I can depend on. They’ll be waiting for me, whether I live long enough to open them or not. Their words and their writers, some long dead themselves, are cheering me on in my own task.

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” (Whitman, quoted in Dead Poets Society.)

The books that need me most are the ones waiting to be born.

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From the Places Where They Played

July 18, 2009

Today was one of those days when I just never quite got to writing. I had the Neo and the notes out, and I worked through some scenes in my mind; but I just didn’t write. I’ll chalk my foot-dragging up to one third laziness, one third caution [treading very carefully this close to the end of the story, not wanting to rush], and one third reluctance to finish — writing this book has been so pleasant that I’m sad to reach the end . . . but not really, and not for long — it’s good to get things finished. I’m estimating there are about three major scenes to go before the end. (Which probably means there will be five or six. Or ten?)

Concerning writing days, I’m a notoriously slow starter. I’ll do any number of things before I get around to writing: oversleep, dust some obscure shelf somewhere in my apartment, ride my bike to the store (the day never really begins for me until I’ve been outside), file some piece of paper that’s been waiting in some pending pile for too long, stare out the window, check e-mail, read some long-forgotten files in “my documents,” notice a book on my shelf that I really want to read soon, review my story notes, chew my fingernails, eat lunch, make coffee, take a long walk, open the refrigerator for no reason, lie down on the floor for awhile. . . . But once all the grains of sand build up to the point at which everything overbalances and the poles reverse [What kind of metaphor was that?! I don’t think that was legal, even with an artistic license.] — once that happens, then I’m scary. It’s like in the movie Troy, when Achilles gives Odysseus a good-sporting jibe for taking his sweet time in getting to Troy, and Odysseus says something like, “I don’t care whether or not I’m there for the beginning of the battle, as long as I’m there for the end!”

Be There For the End — See It Through — Go the Distance — those should be our goals as writers (or in doing whatever we do). Remember why the “Dead Poets Society” is called the “Dead Poets Society”? — It’s because the members are committed to living out their lives as poets. Poetry is a path that you must live to the end, and not turn aside. You’re finally really a poet-all-the-way when you’re a dead poet, when you’ve lived deeply and drunk life to the lees.

Anyway — I have to quote here from a comment that came into this blog last week, because it’s so well said that I wrote it out on a little piece of paper to keep in my “great quotes about writing” notebook. It’s from Catherine, who I’m quite sure will be writing professionally in the near future.

Last week, Catherine wrote:

“The settings and the music, especially, remind me of some idealized time in the past, when everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t; a time that I can only return to if I have a character whose life envelops me so completely that I can’t look out the window without seeing her through the trees.”

That describes so well the writing process when it’s working (for the kinds of stories, of course, that so many of us love)! If you get a character who’s absolutely real to you, and if you immerse your imagination in a setting that evokes that yearning for a remembered time that maybe you never actually lived through (because it’s been improved by your memory and the passage of years), then I think you’re well on your way to creating something extraordinary. Catherine, I’m in awe of how well you’ve summed this up! We’ve talked before about that C.S. Lewis concept of the longing we sometimes feel that does not have its fulfillment in anything we live through from the cradle to the grave — yet still we feel that yearning: and logically, when there is a yearning, there is the corresponding satisfaction of the yearning [there is food for our hunger, there is sleep for our tiredness, there is companionship for our loneliness, etc.] — and therefore, the longing that has no fulfillment in this life is a powerful indication of the existence of Heaven — of more to the picture than we presently see.

Hope Mirrlees explored that idea (indirectly) in Lud-in-the-Mist, and I think a lot of the other great stories do it, too.

A time in the past, when “everything was wonderful except for what wasn’t” — such is also true of the present, of the mundane — right now in our lives, everything is wonderful except for what isn’t. (When we’re older, these will be the times we look back to with our wistfulness and see all the magic that is here!) Yet a great deal of what is really true and what is beautiful seems to come into focus only when we’re well past it on our careening ride into the future. So, I think, so many of us writers look to our childhoods for the clarity and the perspective that makes a worthwhile story. Not that we always write directly about the things we did and thought then; but that we revisit something of what we felt and perceived in those distant days and shine a light on it through the filter of our experiences since then.

Here’s from Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees:

“In [man’s] mouth is ever the bittersweet taste of life and death, unknown to the trees. Without respite he is dragged by the two wild horses, memory and hope; and he is tormented by a secret that he can never tell.”

Memory and hope, the two wild horses that drag and thrash man like a pair of Untowards — these, writers, are two of our most important tools. Bring them to bear!

When I was born, the road I lived on didn’t have a name — it just had a

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking north from in front of my yard

 rural route number. Little by little, the city limits of Taylorville drew closer, and eventually the talk was flying fast and furious of naming the road. The default, front-running name was “Glen Haven Drive” — not because of any careful thought on anyone’s part, but because there is a Glen Haven Cemetery at the first bend in the road. My two childhood neighbor-friends and I intensely disliked that idea, because for one thing, who wants to live on a street named after a graveyard? For another thing, we didn’t like the sound of “Glen Haven” — it seemed ill-suited to a country road in central Illinois. So we thought about it for awhile and came up with “Old Oak Road,” because the road does have an abundance of old oak trees, particularly along its inhabited stretch, before it gives way mostly to fields farther north.

Following some advice from our parents about how to go about getting support for our idea, we boys took a petition up and down the road for the various homeowners to sign if they liked our name. (I don’t remember how old we were; I want to say I was about 9 or 10, which I think is pretty close.) Our dogs also came with us, as they did pretty much wherever we went on our bicycles or on foot; and when they encountered the homeowners’ dogs, they all went through the standard dog protocol of barking furiously at one another.

So our signature-gathering typically went like this:

“Hi! We’re BARK BARK BARK BARK to get BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK if you BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK.”

Sometimes the homeowners had questions, such as:

“What BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK?”

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Old Oak Road, looking south from in front of my yard

Most often, they just signed the petition so we’d take our dogs and go. Then came a city council meeting at which the issue was debated (without dogs); and by, as I recall, a fairly narrow margin, we were awarded our tree-loving, heritage-rich name, and there were three happy little boys who got to live on a road that they’d named. I wish I had here in Japan the picture my mom took of us three kids with the road sign, but you’ll have to settle for the one I’ve got.

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

the corner of Lincoln Trail and Old Oak Road

 

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Abraham Lincoln might conceivably have passed within sight of this oak in my front yard, since his law circuit would have taken him along this route between Allenton and Taylorville.

Anyway, that story is the background for telling you about a long poem my mom wrote shortly thereafter. Her poem was titled “Old Oak Road,” and it began with the creation of the world . . . yes, those six days when everything came ex nihilo by the spoken word of God. She traced the history of that region through the time of the undisturbed trees and the animals . . . to the long ages of the moccasined feet . . . to the coming of the white man . . . to the days when Abraham Lincoln rode along the dirt path there and saw the oak trees . . . to the era of the burgeoning community of Taylorville . . . and so at last to the time of the three boys with their bikes and dogs, who gave the road its name.

Yes, my two friends and I were the culmination of history! We all used to laugh together (Mom, too) about the grandiosity of the poem. It’s never been published except in a volume of my parents’ writings that I printed and bound as a surprise for them a long time later. But Mom did capture a certain intangible something there . . . some echoes of the fulfillment behind the yearning.

One quote from the poem that I’ve often used is this:

“Something whispered in their ears — something spoke from out of time . . . / From the places where they played. . . .”

Mom understood that the “places where we play” in our earliest years become for us a sacred well-spring, from which we draw water for various purposes all our lives. In most of what I do even now, the road and the oaks are whispering still.

And finally, one of the main places we played as kids was the barn behind my house. It’s described best in that same story, “Glory Day,” that I quoted from in the previous post. I promise not to do this every week, but let’s go there one last time. Again, there’s nothing fictional about this except the name “John.”

The barn had always called and whispered to John. If the fields and woods were sacred, then the barn was the chapel at the center of it all. It was entirely wooden, built eighty or ninety years ago. Though it no longer housed horses (Dad had sold Banner to a friend shortly after John was born), it was full of the memory of horses: ancient gray carpets of well-trampled manure and straw on the stall floors, the teeth-marks where horses had gnawed at the boards, and in one trough where mama cats sometimes had their kittens, there remained part of a salt-block for horses to lick — it shone in the dimness like a chunk of snow that never melted.

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

My barn: this photo was taken by my Cousin Steve either when I was a baby or before I was born; the barn as seen here is in slightly better shape than it was during most of our "glory days."

A central concrete walkway separated the lower floor into two rows of stalls. Those on the north were dark rooms with doors that closed, and where toadstools sprouted in the cool half-light. Virginia creeper thickly blanketed the entire north face of the barn outside, from the ground to the high hay-door. The vines’ roots sealed shut various hatches and trapdoors, and framed the windows that were open, so that what light entered was a green glow among fringes of bobbing leaves.

 

The south stalls were more open and airy, their walls mere rail fences that only rose chest-high. More of the outer wall on that side was missing, so that the sun had free access to bake the floor in shifting patches. Insects droned in and out; up under the rafters, mud daubers built nests resembling panpipes. Riots of foxtail and burdock, timothy and poison rhubarb spilled in through gaps near the foundation like crowds of clamoring fans desperate for glimpses of the inner world.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

1968: That's me, with the barn in the background. That's a good friend of our family's, and I think that's her horse, not Dad's.

The wide main door on the west always stood open and could no longer be closed, its rollers rusted, its planks in the grip of maples that had grown up along the walls and become, with their counterparts on the north and east, a natural, supplemental framework, steadying the aged structure against the winds. At the barn’s east end, a ladder climbed to the hayloft.

 

The hayloft occupied the whole upper story, the roof arching high above its hay-littered floor like the keel of an overturned ship. Wooden beams transected the space in struts and arches. Birds nested in the eaves. The loft still saw active duty — the tenant farmer from up the road stored his hay bales there in stacked banks that rose to the upper braces. He would remove them a few at a time as needed, so that their cliffs changed as the seasons unfolded. But John and his friends considered the bales to be their own private set of giant building blocks. They could be positioned into tunnels and fortresses — hot, itchy, pitch-black crawlspaces delightfully scented of alfalfa and timothy. Bound at times into these hay-block walls were long, papery snake skins.

The loft was the perfect place for the long, aimless conversations of boyhood — the plans, the fancies, the arguments, the make-believe. And when no friends were available, it was the place to read. John sat in the open hatchway on the west, his feet dangling above the ground far below, and read Lovecraft and Dunsany and The Martian Chronicles.

And so the barn was. It was the best. Suggestion for comments: how about describing that place you played as a child, when summers went on forever, and you could read all day with impunity?

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

1968: Mom and me in the field. What, am I EATING the corn we're gleaning?!

Thunder and Providence

July 3, 2009

Do you know what’s coming next Wednesday? In the early morning hours — to be precise, at six seconds past 4:05 a.m. — the time and date will be:

04:05:06/07/08/09.

Aren’t you glad you found that out? Otherwise, you would have missed it entirely — you probably would have been sleeping or something. Now you can celebrate the moment by running around your yard shouting, waving a couple of sparklers you’ll save from the 4th just for the purpose. That’s what I’d be doing . . . if I had a yard.

Anyway — Happy Fourth of July!

I’ve been thinking hard about this holiday over the last few days.

Not long ago, I read an article about George Washington, which described how he miraculously escaped death on several occasions, both as a young man and during the Revolution. I’m talking miraculous — he should have been toast, but wasn’t — close-range bullets strangely not hitting him, and one instance in which a British soldier had him in the sights of a newly-developed, far-shooting rifle . . . but didn’t realize who this tall, imposing fellow was, and decided it just wasn’t decent to kill a man in such a way. And without the leadership of Washington, it’s very possible — even probable — that the nearly hopeless American army would have been completely hopeless, and the war lost.

A friend this week was telling me about how, by nearly any historian’s estimation, the Revolution was a war that the Americans never should have won. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and severely lacking in training, battle experience, and seasoned leaders. They suffered some terrible defeats. What saved them again and again — and eventually turned the tide of the war — was geography, and the weather, and what many great minds of the time could only attribute to Divine Providence: the hand of God shaping human history.

Throughout my life I’ve connected Glory Day — July 4th — with freedom. But for me growing up, that meant “freedom from school.” I linked the holiday to the fun of fireworks and cookouts and spending time with friends and relatives met only rarely. Fun, fun, fun: but that fun and that freedom were bought at a heavy price.

There was a scene in the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, that really brought the impact of the Revolution home to me. Mel Gibson’s character, an American farmer, comes out onto his porch and sees a line of British redcoats advancing into view from among the trees in his pasture. As I sat there in the theater, that scene jolted me to the core. THAT was the Revolution: enemy troops in your pasture, stepping around the trees you climbed as a kid. Enemy troops in your yard. Shooting at you.

That was the reality then, and it’s the reality today for many people in the world.

It’s about a different war, but I know anyone who saw Saving Private Ryan on the big screen will never forget it. Yes, I mean the first half-hour or so, the intensely realistic depiction of the Allies coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy, under the muzzles of the German guns. When I saw that film, I seriously questioned what I was doing as a writer. At the time, I was working on The Fires of the Deep, a fantasy that takes place during a war. My book included several large-scale battle scenes of precisely that type. The movie made me ask myself whether I had any right to be doing that — to be using war as a part of a fiction book written to entertain readers. I, who have never fought in a war . . . writing a book about war . . . war as entertainment. I felt I should burn the manuscript and go start apologizing to veterans.

Tolkien had far more of a right, if anyone does: he fought in World War I, lost something like three of his four closest friends in the Battle of the Somme, caught trench fever, and was invalided home. So when he writes of battle, it’s quite real. He knows whereof he speaks, and he never misrepresents war. When we read LOTR, we come away knowing that war is a dark, sorrowful thing.

It’s true that martial conflict has always been an element explored and utilized by the poets and writers of the human race, because war is what we humans do, as much as we do anything else. Certainly its drama, its consequence, and its absolutes help to define characters, and writers love to work with stuff like that.

It’s also true that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, one of the best-known and enduring novels of the Civil War, was written by a man who was not a soldier and had no firsthand experience of the war.

So I haven’t given up writing about war (and I didn’t burn the manuscript), but I hope I handle combat as the sad and horrifying inevitability it is in this sin-darkened world.

I have a cousin who is a veteran of Vietnam. Like Tolkien, he lost very close friends in the slaughter. He came home full of metal fragments for which, even now in July 2009, he is having surgeries. He hates the 4th of July — not for what it means, but because of its physical stimuli: in hot, sultry, steamy weather, the sky is full of explosions, and the air is laced with the smell of gunpowder. It’s far too close a reenactment of what he experienced over there. The 4th is a holiday he grits his teeth and gets through.

When he read my story “Seawall,” the climactic battle story at the end of the Agondria cycle, he offered me his experience. “Let me tell you some things about what a person thinks and feels just before and during combat.” I would never have asked him to relive such things, but you can believe I listened with both ears and took very thorough notes. I revised “Seawall” accordingly — so if you read it, you’ll know that the battle parts are as close to the real thing as I can get them — I who do not know war and have no right.

While we’re on this topic: people ask me, since I live in Japan, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “What’s it like?” . . . “Have you been there?” . . . “What do people think?” Yes, I’ve been to Hiroshima, but not to Nagasaki. I’ve seen the “Atomic Bomb Dome” — the one gutted, domed building that was left standing in August of 1945, because it was in the blast shadow, directly under ground zero. I’ve seen the Peace Park and the museum there, and that, too, is an experience I’ll never forget. Aside from all the written accounts, the films, the photos, and the half-melted artifacts on display there, three things in particular are etched in my memory:

One is a 360-degree photo, floor to ceiling, that covers the wall of a circular room in the museum. This picture (probably a carefully-pieced composite) was taken at the blast center. It shows flat, charred wreckage to the horizon in every direction. Where there was once a city full of people.

Another is a wall of maps for comparison. The maps are of several major cities in the world, with different colored circles showing you the effects of a bomb equal in strength to that dropped on Hiroshima. I picked out Chicago, where I’d gone to school for four years, and I spent quite a while studying which suburbs would be vaporized, which would be flattened, which would be set ablaze. . . . When it’s a city you know something about, there’s a lot you think about.

Finally, the museum has a long, long wall of illustrated accounts of the atomic explosion and the days afterward . . . done by children. Children who lived through it — what they saw, what they thought, what they felt, what they did. Big, childlike letters and colorful pictures. The pictures are very much like the gruesome scenes we kids (okay, we boys) drew for amusement, from our imaginations. But these were scenes that kids like ourselves actually saw.

The single most memorable piece we played in junior high band class was an arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It started out through a few verses with beauty and grandeur and mounting tension — a brave young country careening toward internal war. In the middle section, after the melody had risen to a kind of scream, all the wind instruments dropped out, and a grand timpani solo took over. The percussionist pounded the kettledrums, rattling the windows. Hooves, rifles, cannon fire . . . North and South, clashing headlong . . . John Brown, convinced “that the sins of this guilty country cannot be purged away but with blood.” Then the shots faded, the smoke rose, and a muted trumpet played a sorrowful lament. Finally, the other voices came back, reacquiring harmony, gathering strength. As a kid in junior high, I got goosebumps every single time we played it.

This isn’t a post about delight and enchantment this week. Maybe it’s a theme I should have saved for Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day. But I thought Glory Day, this time at the height of summer when we live to the fullest and read and write, watch movies, travel, and dream, would also be a good time for us all to remember a respect for our materials, whatever they may be. Those materials come to our hands at a price. Our freedom is the result of sacrifices made on our behalf . . . and it is the gift of a Power greater than ourselves, ordering our days.

Near the end of Saving Private Ryan, the Tom Hanks character delivers a stern speech to Private Ryan, reminding him that his life, too, has been purchased at a great cost, so Ryan has a duty now to use his life well.

Is that not our only response to Providence? G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Here dies another day during which I have had eyes, ears, hands, and the great world around me. And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed TWO?”

And in the words of the unforgettable Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society:

“What will your verse be? Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Summer Nights and Reading Spaces

July 11, 2008

I remember the first time I noticed that a bright moon can throw your shadow as sharply onto the ground as the sun can. I made that discovery because I was out in a summer night, reveling in the cool breeze, the warmth rising from the land, the symphony of the crickets, and the smells of mown grass and horses and leaves.

In Japan, autumn is said to be the time for reading. Of course it can be done year-round, but for me, books and stories called most insistently when the world warmed up in spring, and when the spring unfurled into glorious summer. Naturally, there was the pragmatic reason: kids are burdened with school for most of the year, and it’s summer that offers the freedom to read unchecked, unhindered by that travesty that is organized education. In Japan, to describe hot, perfect summer weather, I still use the phrase bunshou no tenki — “writing weather” — which, yes, raises some eyebrows, since most people see no correlation between sweating profusely and a celebration of the arts. Sigh.

But as a kid, warmer and longer days meant that it was time for me to grab a book and go outdoors. Out in the shade of trees, out in that immemorial green light, was the truest and best place to escape into the worlds of stories. I can recall reading The Martian Chronicles in the open doorway of the barn’s hayloft, my bare feet swinging in space. I read Avram Davidson’s The Kar-Chee Reign and Rogue Dragon (a “double-feature” book that flipped in the middle, one novel beginning from each end) sitting cross-legged atop a barrel on the grounds of our local historical museum, where my mom was ever active. I read some of the post-Jaws rogue animal books there, too, on the steps of the courthouse where Lincoln himself once practiced law.

I had a “reading grove” in the northwest corner of our front yard (where my dog Hooper was later buried). I would sit there on a folding chair with my feet propped in the fork of a young oak, reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. In the same spot, using a lapboard, yellow legal pads, and a soft mechanical pencil, I wrote a great deal of The Threshold of Twilight, my first full-length novel manuscript.

Ooh, check out this picture! This is in the backyard of my house in Illinois: the gate from a long-gone corral, leaned against young maples in years gone by, half-swallowed by the growing trunks. This tendency of nature to reclaim human artifacts has always fascinated and thrilled me. I was thinking of such things in college when I wrote the lines, from “Urban Requiem”:

“In the rainy end of days the satyrs

Came and rolled on spools the broken wires,

Rekindled the old infernal fires,

And scooped clean soil over oily matters.”

But I digress. I read a whole lot of Lovecraft in various places in the yards. I read most of Stephen King’s It on the banks of our pond and on the back porch. I read on shed roofs, in trees, on the hoods and trunks of cars, in the tire swing, atop the root cellar, and everywhere in between. When darkness forced me indoors, yes, I read there, too.

When darkness fell, though, sometimes I’d wander back outdoors, not reading now, but marveling at this wonder that was summer. As a teenager, I was quite taken with celebrating Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a big deal in Tolkien’s works, and I think those are what introduced me to the concept. “Elvish singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars. . . .” Pretty much all folkloric sources agree that it’s probably the most favorable time of year for encounters with the Good Folk. The question arises, though, as to when exactly Midsummer’s Eve is. Some say it’s the night before the solstice — June 20. Some prefer the night of the solstice — June 21. Some Christians choose to go with June 24, the eve of the celebration of John the Baptist’s birth. I say that whole week is fair game. Go with whatever night it isn’t raining.

Yes, I haunted the yard on Midsummer’s Eve. I’d take along a lantern — an oil-burning lantern, not just a mere flashlight, though I usually had one of those, too; I’d take a wooden staff I’d found in the woods, a fallen tree branch that I’d sanded and varnished. I’d take a copy of Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder and another book, the front cover long gone, so I don’t even know the title; but it was a collection of stories and poems about fairies. And I’d take stationery and a pen.

I’d wander along the hedgerows, run my fingers over the oak bark, gaze up into the trembling firmament of leaves and stars; I’d raise my lamp and stoop beside the knothole among the roots of the two-hundred-year-old oak, which seemed indeed a likely place for wee magical folk to live. I’d sit on the picnic table and read from the books. Then I’d write myself a Midsummer’s Eve letter, describing the sights, sounds, feels, smells — the whole of the night, as best I could; and I’d tuck the paper into an envelope, to be kept with the books and read again on the next Midsummer’s Eve, along with the other letters from previous years.

After coming to Japan, for three or four years I dragged a group of good-natured friends along and combined this letter-writing custom with the practice of reading poetry aloud, a la the movie Dead Poets Society. But that’s moving on into another set of stories.

Finally, I should add that summer goes on for a long time: there’s no need to confine the celebration to one week in June. July brings what I call the “Deep Summer,” and August brings the grand Dog Days. It’s the best of all seasons, and we shouldn’t miss a moment of it. Garrison Keillor advises, too, that we should make the absolute most of it: “Don’t try to sleep in the summer. You can sleep in the winter.” I remember a particularly nice June Eve, the last night of May, when I celebrated by watching Field of Dreams with my dad. If you’re blessed to still have your dad with you on this side of Eternity, that’s a really good movie to watch with him.

So, the discussion questions are two:

1. Does anyone care to tell us what is your best/favorite place to read in, either now and/or when you were a child? (It doesn’t have to be outdoors. Indoor reading is also condoned and encouraged.)

2. If summer nights are magical for you, what’s a way you’ve found to capture and enjoy that magic? What do you do (assuming it’s fit to print) to enjoy a night in summer to its fullest?

Looking from a Certain Angle

April 29, 2008

“There is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.”

–Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

I’m about a third of the way into the extraordinary book quoted above. It was recommended to me by four different friends, and I’m finally getting around to reading it. It is truly wonderful. Most definitely it belongs on the “small shelf” of the most treasured books in the library of a serious lover of fantasy. It was written just shy of a century ago, but don’t let that discourage you. Ms. Mirrlees wrote in a clear, elegant, uncluttered style that makes for smooth, pleasant reading. Moreover, she knew how to tell a story; I found myself drawn in at once to the lives and adventures of the Chanticleer family and their associates.

Like so many of my favorite writers, Hope Mirrlees was clearly as enchanted by the natural world as by any fantastical elements of a fairy tale; or rather, she rightly understood just how numinous the created world is, in and of itself. What, she asks, is more magical than a hawthorn tree coming suddenly to life in the spring?

Anyway, her words that I quoted above express, I believe, one of the fundamental concepts upon which any discussion of writing fantasy fiction should be built. Tolkien said essentially the same thing in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” And Leonardo da Vinci reportedly told his art students that they should stare at the cracks in the walls until they saw whole worlds pouring out of them.

Where do ideas come from? How can we write about Faery when we’ve never been there? The ideas are all around us, and I’d contend that we live all the time with one foot in Faery. It’s a matter of knowing how to see, how to listen. Lilacs are blooming just now in the northern hemisphere. Go out and press your nose into their twilight-colored clusters. Drink in that fragrance like none other on Earth. If you would see fairies, they’re dancing there, among those dusky, heart-shaped leaves.

We knew this well as children. Were we not all experts at taking “homely things” and making of them the equipment we needed for our adventures, no matter how fantastic? I recall the rusted wreck of a bicycle that, overturned and stood upon its handlebars and seat, became the wheelhouse of my imaginary “shark-fishing boat”: the bicycle’s tire was the ship’s wheel, and the kickstand was the throttle (its rusty resistance so mechanically satisfying when it was shifted up or down with a grrooiiink!). The bike’s pedals were the winch-crank for raising and lowering the anti-shark cage.

In the movie Dead Poets Society, English teacher Mr. Keating has his students stand, one by one, atop his desk in order to view the classroom from that vantage point–an angle from which they’ve never seen it.

So we, too, if we set out to write fantasy, must stand in places we don’t normally stand. We must look around, and listen to the quietness and the whispers of leaves. Let us remember what we knew before we ever opened a textbook: that the wonders are here, more than any book can contain. Grab hold of one and write about it!