Monday, March 10, 2014
First, I want to thank the amazing activist, writer, and teacher Diane Lefer http://dianelefer.weebly.com/ for getting this thing going. Yay!
And thanks to my buddy, Natalia Sarkissian http://nataliasarkissian.com/, herself an amazing writer and photographer, for inviting me to become involved. Write on!
What I've discovered through this short exercise is a better understanding of myself, my strengths as a writer, and my excuses for not working as hard as I can every day to better my craft. It has been motivational, and for that I am grateful.
Please check out the two talented writers I am introducing at the end of this posting, and why not follow and support their blogs and their writing?
1) What am I working on?
I currently have two novels in progress. One, tentatively titled Pontotoc is a coming-of-age novel about two Texas brothers, Rafe and Peep McLeod, who lose their parents in short order and head out seeking the tiny settlement of Pontotoc to locate an aunt and uncle. Of course, in novels, those things rarely go according to plan, and the brothers end up lost, then on an ill-fated trail drive, and end up with young Tom O'Folliard involved in the Lincoln County War in New Mexico Territory as two innocents running with Billy the Kid and his Regulators. They make their way to El Paso after Pat Garrett kills the wrong Billy, and find work in the saloon of notorious Sheriff Dallas Stoudenmire, a former Ranger known for his hard drinking and rashness, which eventually gets him killed. When sober, Stoudenmire is a good mentor and gets Rafe interested in the honor of Rangering. The boys move on to Austin and are befriended by Marshall Ben Thompson, the English gunman and his loco brother, Billy. Because of Ben's penchant for violence, he and Rancher King Fisher are ambushed in a vendetta at the Vaudeville Theater in San Antonio. Once again the brothers push on for Pontotoc. Their search for family and mentors has ended badly, but in the end, flawed role models are just as effective as good ones and the boys end up achieving their dream of becoming Texas Rangers.
The second novel, untitled, flashes between 1843 and the present to the same location in Blanco County, Texas and then to several other locations across time and space as it follows Tim Reuland through his incarnations. In the opening segment, Reuland is a straggler from a Texas Ranger company that rode down and massacred a small band of Comanche, having mistaken them for cattle thieves. Reuland rapes the surviving woman, who then kills him -- and then continues to kill him in every lifetime up to his present one.
In this incarnation, the woman jerks a ladder from under Reuland while he is painting his ranch house, and the fall throws him into a closed brain injury coma. The lights are on, but no one is home. While his wife, Tina, enlists the best neurological doctors in the country, Tim floats between worlds where he and the Comanche woman, Rain Elk, finally come face-to-face to work out the issues that have bound and followed them through eternity.
2) How does my work differ from others of this genre?
The first question would be in what genre am I working? I would say it is literary historical fiction that I'm currently exploring. I am very cognizant that writers not only have to have to write beautifully, but they absolutely must tell a compelling story. Story sustains the reader, whereas beauty and skill on the sentence level sustain the narrative.
I am a student of history and am most familiar with Texas as a setting, so I quite naturally combine the two in these novels. I also have a penchant for magical realism, so non-ordinary occurrences sometimes happen as easily as breathing in my work. This is obvious in the untitled work in progress as well as two finished narratives. I strive to make the boundaries between real and surreal disappear for the reader. With that line blurred, stories become interesting.
I've also been accused of having a certain level of violence in my works. It works well for Cormac McCarthy, and as long as violence isn't gratuitous and is integral to the story, then I write it! I do violence pretty well, which is obviously a necessity. After all, the era I'm writing about was a violent time.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write about things that interest me. I've written about professional wrestlers, pimps and call girls, cowboys and Indians, and ghosts. (Hmmm..I wonder what this says about me?) There's also a spiritual (not religious) undertone to most of my work, so I suppose I'm interested in what the hell is the purpose for our lives. There has to be more to life than chance. At least I think so.
My characters get thrown into confusing, often magical situations that leave them straddling the threshold between life and the afterlife as they try to make sense of the beauty and awesomeness of this amazing and puzzling event. I suppose that is the quest in my writing.
4) How does your writing process work?
I'm going to fess up here and own up to the fact that my process this past year has been on par with retreating glaciers during the last ice age. I blame that on several factors:
a) We became custodial grandparents of our infant grandson one year ago this month. There are so many blessings that come with that opportunity, but keeping a schedule and getting enough sleep are not high on the list!
I've seen this with writer friends who have become new mothers, and now I can identify. Their blogs are all about the baby, motherhood, the challenges of trying to write with a baby, asking their readers "Am I talking about my child too much?", and writing mostly short-short posts fleshed out with a lot of photographs.
I recently read that the average American now has an attention span of 8 seconds. Yup. Sounds about right to me. Everything I've been writing for the past year has been micro-fiction. I think it has to do with attention span and the relegation of craft time to the hours when I don't think straight anymore. Novels have definitely gone begging. I have two in progress that are feeling like red-headed stepchildren right now. I do like micro fiction. I also write poetry as a warm up for fiction. It makes me economical with word choice and rhythm.
b) A rebounding economy. I'm in the design and construction business (www.CasaDesignCo(dot)com) and these days I am being pulled in 16 1/2 different directions. It's called making a living. Tom Clancy, Elmore Leonard, and many of you have probably figured out how to keep all the balls in the air, but this year it has eluded me. I need someone expecting my manuscripts. My life is built around deadlines and deliverables. Without deadlines there are no deliverables.
So why have I not pushed forward as well as I would have liked? Paying clients get the best hours. Family gets second tier time (don't act so damn holier than thou, Oh my readers), and the things I like to do but that don't pay at the moment -- writing, going to the gym to workout, sex -- compete for what's left. Oh, and sleep. Yeah. What's that?
I could blame being stuck on the structure of the novels in progress, especially the untitled one, and that's the truth. But I also know that if I would put my ass in the chair and work on my process every day, the structure would work itself out. I've done it before. Novels take on a certain synergy when given the chance to blossom.
Which brings me around to general sloth and laziness. I find myself wanting to qualify the bluntness of that statement, but there's really nothing to say to soften truth. For such a hard worker and self-starter on so many fronts, it would appear I have taken a three martini lunch this year and forgotten I have to go back to the writing "office" if I want to get anything of value accomplished.
When I think about process, I dream of getting up at five a.m., doing a little yoga and meditation, then retreating to my office to write until 11 a.m. every day. The trick would be to not let people see the self-imposed solitude and to let them simply wonder how the hell you are managing to crank out a novel a year. And still have time for golf.
Remember, I said I dream of that. The reality is that I end up taking off my analytical work hat and slipping into a coffee shop to don my writer's suit. The one with a cape and the big W on the front. Then if I can magically shift thought processes, I can eke out maybe two hours at best before the other commitments find me. Heaven help me if I check my email, which will derail everything. So I don't. Nevertheless, it can still take thirty minutes to decompress enough to get started. Let's just say I am overly concerned about time because there just isn't enough of it. Todd Rundgren sang, "I don't want to work, I just want to bang on the drum all day." I just want to bang on the keyboard and create.
I generally begin by editing my last writing session and usually puts me into the moment where I previously left off, and catches me up to this session's starting point. They say you shouldn't edit while you write and I try to adhere to that in order to get words on the page. I'm a good editor so I know I'll catch up to that part later.
My strength is probably voice. That's a good strength to have.
My weakness is probably the structure, the architecture so to speak, of the novel. I employ a lot of what would be called magical realism, possibly because it allows me to create happenings and novel events that don't always have to be "logical." I'm tired of logic. Real life strives to be logical. We all get enough of that. I want a novel to lift me out of logic. Some might say I am just being lazy and don't want to work out the details. Some could be right.
So there you have it, folks. The bare facts as I see them on March 10, 2014. The Blog Tour is a good exercise not only to introduce myself to you, but to also examine the holes in my own writing process. The main thing is to create space and time to let the process work, because when I do, it always comes through and in the process takes me for a wild and very interesting ride. That is when writing becomes truly magical -- when I sit back and wonder what my characters will create next.
Thanks for reading!
Let me introduce some other writers to you, who will be posting for the Tour on March 17th. Please check them out and follow their work:
Zack Kopp is a freelance writer, musician and tour guide currently living in Denver. This blog is the latest part of his ongoing effort to market himself as a writer of multiple aptitudes, featuring, as it does, various sorts of citizen journalism, intelligent fiction, and something Kopp calls "metamorphic prose." The blog, updated as frequently as possible, is also a way to market Kopp's published works and act as a nerve center for his online presence. http://rentparty.blogspot.com/
Jennifer (Jaijot Kaur) Eldridge Benjamin finds herself at a crossroads, it seems almost daily. She is currently a student of Chinese Medicine, a long time yoga practitioner, yoga teacher, yoga teacher trainer, mother and wife. Jennifer's family and studies inform her every breath. When not filling the roles listed previously she finds deep satisfaction from digging in the earth. She expresses her creativity, vulnerability and sheer joy for life through writing.
The blog "New Rules for the Good Girl", which can be found at www.jaijotkaur.com, started as an experiment to keep in touch with friends while walking the Camino de Santiago across the North of Spain. Since the walk she has been working on a novel which is based on her adventure, as well as the journeys of three other fascinating women with moving, transformative and entertaining stories to tell. Jennifer shares her writing with the hope that those who read it will see that it is possible to be brave enough to go after their dreams (even when they seem impossible), find their truths (especially if they are hard) and be strong enough to live them (no matter the perceived consequences.) Her vision is that we can touch those deeply held spaces, be present for the learning that resides within them, and heal, all the while laughing at the mystery, magic and comedy of this play we call life.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
He’d given up journaling because his life seemed just too mundane to keep wasting time writing something even he wouldn’t read. I’m doing it for the introspective value, he would tell himself as he struggled through a scant page a day, if that. He journaled about the weather, observances of local wildlife, about thoughts so uninspiring and shallow that he finally put the black journal down and didn’t pick it up again. That was two months ago. Now winter was fully upon the valley once again. Where had the year gone?
Winter. The best time of year for introspection, yet this season nothing was forthcoming. The fireplace burned nicely, restarted from the banked ashes of last night’s fire in a reassuring and endless continuum. Warmth was life. He would go out and begin some chore or another after the sun was fully up, but right now it was fine sitting at his makeshift desk in front of the south facing window, which badly needed washing, watching the daylight slowly advance up the long deep valley beyond the pines in the foreground. Bare deciduous trees etched the horizon of the opposite hills. He decided winter light possessed an entirely different quality – a cooler, weaker yellow like meringue or piss, with none of the exuberance of summer dawnings.
He didn’t know why nothing was forthcoming. It was as if a spigot had been shut off within; a disconcerting feeling because he was a writer, a man attuned to thinking deeply about things. But now he seemed unable to think about anything other than homestead chores, which required a practical thought process, refreshingly simple. Refreshing for the first year because, if the truth be told, he had been hiding from deep thoughts. Now that he was finally ready to analyze his situation it was as if he had lost his ability to do so. Being a writer, he thought best with his fingers on a keyboard, but day after day nothing would happen. After an hour, he would shut down the computer and do his chores. There was never a shortage of chores. In this remote valley with no internet connection, chores replaced social media.
Friends complained he was no longer accessible. His old teaching friend Richard Self had called him up the other day. “Jack, come on into town and I’ll buy you dinner. Jesus, you’re turning into a mountain man.”
“Love to, Rich, but I’m really cranking on the new book,” he lied.
“You’re really hard to get hold of now. How the hell do you research a new novel without internet?”
“I go to the library and use their Wi-Fi when I need something. Hey, you got hold of me, didn’t you?”
“Third time I tried,” said Richard. “How about Friday evening? Come by the house and we’ll go paint the town.”
“Cool. I will. Thanks for calling, Rich, see you Friday.”
Jack Padgett sat for a few more minutes, fingers brushing over the keyboard like a blind man, watching the pines sway in the cold wind. The light was less anemic now. His third cup of coffee had gone cold like the day. He decided to switch to Brandy later, something more befitting January. He switched off the computer. But first a man had things to do simply to survive: split wood, check the chicken coop heat lamp, chores. Things that kept a man from thinking too deeply.
Monday, December 16, 2013
“Hey, Mister, we need some help. We’re trying to get a hotel room for the night and we’re twenty dollars short.”
She approached us from the middle of Don Gaspar as we were walking to dinner at The Shed. The frigid night was biting through my many layers of clothing, our breath a cloud of vapor against the faint orange tint of a street lamp. My wife and I had been walking with our muffled faces down against the cold wind, so the woman had encroached upon us before we saw her. Because of that, I was immediately on guard. There was something about her request that bordered on demand – a little too practiced, her words resonating off the frozen pavement and stucco walls of adjacent buildings. My first impression was that she was way underdressed; my second was that she possibly had Downs syndrome. One eye had a red hemorrhage slashed across the white. She was definitely wired.
“We’re homeless. We need twenty dollars.” She spoke without making eye contact, looking beyond me at other passing couples. Her partner hung back in the shadows, male or female I couldn’t tell beneath the hoodie.
“You’re homeless in Santa Fe this time of year?” I said, seeking a moment to ascertain if she was genuinely in need. Her demanding tone had me thinking it was another panhandle, someone needing a fix or money for a jug.
“Uh huh,” she said, still looking past me.
I decided it was a panhandle, but also deciding it would be easier to give her a buck because of her aggressive approach, like paying a toll. She eyed my wallet as I opened it. Damn…tens and twenties only. Maybe for a person in need but not for this one.
“Honey, do you have a dollar for this lady?” I asked. My wife withdrew a one from her purse and handed it over. The girl held it to the light to determine its value, or maybe to make sure it wasn’t counterfeit. She jammed it into her pocket with obvious disgust, never a thanks, already turning her attention toward another couple approaching.
“Hey, maybe a little gratitude…?” I said, not that I expected any.
As we moved on toward San Francisco Street, her demanding refrain echoed behind us in the chilly night.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
There used to be a Mexican guy who worked here, but he’s gone now. I come for the coffee, but I liked that guy. He worked without pause, bussing tables, shooing away the grackles, sweeping away leaves in the autumn, or cleaning white bird shit from the black wrought iron chairs with a wet rag. Always smiling he was and I liked that his approach made me consider my own work and my own life; how he could manage to be so happy at a no-recognition minimum wage job, while I have to work at happiness even though I probably possess a hundred times his assets.
I always talked to him in my poor Spanish and he seemed to appreciate the fact that at least I tried; that at least I acknowledged his existence. But my Spanish sucks, so about all we could talk about was the weather, what a nice day it was, or how hard he was working. I was never good enough to talk to him about anything of substance: how he felt about immigration law; if Texas was better or worse than other places in the States he’d worked; was that Mayan ancestry I saw in his facial structure?
That was beyond the depth of my conversational abilities and now he’s gone. The last few times I’ve been here to write and drink coffee the grackles were running roughshod over the patio furniture and the bus trays have been stacked to precarious levels before anyone comes out to empty them. Did that fellow find a new job, or did he grow tired of the whole situation and head back to Tamaulipas or Chiapas to finally spend some of his life with his wife and children? I’ll never know these things and can only imagine.
As a building contractor I had guys who subcontracted work from me year after year who were as illegal as I am white, but they did the best work and were generally an agreeable lot who worked hard and didn’t complain, who cooked lunch beans and tortillas over a small open fire, who replied “Si se puede” when I requested a change in the work. I had foundation crews who worked like dogs and stone masons who were truly artists -- puzzle masters who inevitably put the perfect stones in just the right places, every time. Most of them lived six or eight men to a singlewide trailer, far from family and home, wired most of their pay home and likely did without sex for long periods of time in order to send that lifeblood dinero back to Mexico, keeping back a few dollars for their beans and tortillas, some pork chops and chilies, and a few cervezas. As a Patron, the best I could do was to pay them promptly for services rendered and to show up at the jobsite with a case of beer on Friday afternoons where we would lean against dusty pickups and somehow communicate despite our limited common lingo.
Every Christmas season, most of them would go home to Mexico, usually spending a month or so getting reacquainted with their children, making sweet love to their women, and doing a little more work on their own abodes, which were always in some phase of expansion and construction. Because they worked hard and wired money home, they were considered well off in their own villages – men of some means, whose daughters perhaps owned a computer, men who could hire their own countrymen to help with the inevitable concrete and block work necessary to enlarge their own homes. Maybe their esposas conceived over that month of nightly lovemaking, maybe not, but that was between the esposa and La Virgen de Guadalupe. That was a thing for the women to decide for the man simply fertilized the seed placed by La Virgen, and seldom ventured into the churches where the women prayed for whatever it is that women pray for. I often wondered if a disproportionate number of young Mexicans were being born in September and October because of those annual Yule time pilgrimages home by the workers. And what might the effect be of a nation with an unusual amount of Virgos and Libras coming of age at the same time? I suppose time will tell on that one.
The real depth of these men's character was evident by what they went through in order to get back into Texas and back to their work. The ordeal usually involved a trip to a border town on the Mexico side to bide their time awaiting the call from one of the many coyotes, the human smugglers, to tell them it was time to move.
¡Ahora mismo! Date prisa! ¡Esta noche! The call would finally come.
Men and women were dropped into the desert so far from any town there was absolutely no urban light glow on the black horizon in any direction. No light except a waxing or waning moon’s light with which to make out distant hills, the faint deer trail to follow, or the silhouette of a La Migra vehicle, blacked out and waiting like a predator across the known people trails. A new moon rendered it impossibly dark and a full moon could paint a man like a target. Only two plastic jugs of precious agua and a vague understanding of where to rendezvous for pickup separated the living from the dead, for there is scant margin for error in a desert large enough to consume New England. If La Migra didn’t find you, there was a fair chance that no one else would either. It was easy to become disoriented in the darkness and begin walking in vast circles until the water ran out. Or often they arrived at the appointed rendezvous point only to be abandoned. The men paid in advance in a deal of trust with often unscrupulous individuals. Most coyotes were in it for the long term and worked off an underground referral system amongst the illegals, but shit often happened. Shit beyond anyone’s control. Shit like vehicle breakdowns or impoundments. Shit like too much heat from La Migra in that particular quadrant of the vast ocean of desert. Unpredictable shit that left people dead of exposure or thirst or left them seeking La Migra in order to remain among the living.
The lucky ones were those crossing with brothers and uncles, men who would watch your back. The best scenario was the company of men from your own village. Men who knew you and were maybe even distant relations; so distant you couldn’t claim one another but your blood knew. Blood always knew and blood watched out for its own. It was unfavorable to make this crossing with strangers if it could be avoided. Wild cards could get you killed or busted and deported. Busted and deported meant you would never have the opportunity to obtain a green card in the future. A green card meant you no longer need pay a coyote thousands of dollars; meant you could possibly bring your wife and kids into the country when you had a legal job; a job you could only find by coming across illegally and impressing some US Patron into sponsoring you. Being busted and deported would eliminate even that unlikely opportunity. For men who risk their lives getting back into the US to work seven days a week if they can, to send back all their money except for the bare necessities, to not see family for eleven months at a time, even an unlikely opportunity for a green card provides reason to hope.
Yes, I wonder what became of my amigo with the ready smile and the grackle rag. Is he back home in Mexico with his family or at another job here in Texas? I’d like to think he won a large scratch-off lottery prize and is now a Patron in his own village instead of the possibility that he could be just more bones bleaching in the Coahuila desert sun.