Events and ideas sometimes explode to bounce around like beads from a careless woman's necklace, so that sometimes you have to string several at once in order to regain footing. Herewith, beads on a string.
* The world lost a would-be shrine when the old Cormac McCarthy home burned down Jan. 27 in Knoxville. The famous author's brother Dennis and sister-in-law Judy were at my writing workshop at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church that evening. They were stoic. The house was rundown, perhaps beyond saving, long out of the family's possession. Later, Dennis read aloud the following sentence from The Road, Cormac's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
" He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago."
I tried gleaning support for saving the house over the years. After all Cormac's likely been short-listed for the Nobel Prize more than once for novels such as No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, The Road, Blood Meridian, Suttree, Child of God and so on. I envisioned a shrine like the Thomas Wolfe home in Asheville, the wondrous Carl Sandburg place in Flat Rock.
Here's what I wrote about the McCarthy house in a June 1990 article in The Knoxville News-Sentinel. "Later they moved about 10 miles away to Martin Mill Pike, a sinuous drive into the leafy countryside of South Knox County. When I saw it, the white, gabled structure was choked with weeds and debris, but once it was structurally sound and dignified.
" 'Cormac ran all these forests and hills,' Annie Delisle (his former wife) said in her singing English accent as she drove past the house.. 'He used to put his traps out here..' "
An opportunity for a McCarthy shrine has passed, yet others remain. To read more visit NewMillenniumWritings.com.
* John Updike was the first author interviewed for New Millennium Writings, the journal I began in 1996, and his death, also on Jan. 27, left me feeling a sad disquiet. Twice I met him, a tall, gracious presence. He was generous with his wisdom and preciously guarded time. At the Tennessee Theater for a Friends of the Library reading, the always industrious writer made corrections to his poetry as he read. Three things he said to me in those years stayed with me.
First, "When you come to the practice of your art you have to go with what thrills you. If you wrote some opposite way, you would get criticized for that. You have to please yourself."
In response to my question, "Do you believe in God?" he said this:
"Not to believe in God seems a terrible confession of meaninglessness." And yet, he also said.
"What does the Hubble Telescope tell us? It's a ridiculously large universe from which no clear message emerges.."
* Such notions first confronted me as a teenager reading science-fiction and watching Star Trek. Wednesday I read an article about a new study that concludes the cosmos is teeming with Earth-type planets, many surely awash with water and life. The article at cnn.com posited the existence of up to 100 billion such planets in our Milky Way alone. A decade ago, the story would've thrilled me. Somehow, it doesn't now. The age of miracles and wonders has taken the edge off my capacity to marvel, I suspect. If so, there's a loss worth lamenting.
* Destruction of this good earth is worth lamenting even more. Mountaintops blasted away with all attendant life thereon, and waters that will never be as clean again in states throughout the Appalachians and beyond are worth decrying. Fortunately, two bills coming before the Tennessee state legislature, possibly as early as next week, would eliminate much mountaintop removal. For more information about how you can help stop such practices, visit www.tnleaf.org or email email@example.com.
* On a national scale, "The Clean Water Protection Act would sharply reduce mountaintop removal. protect clean drinking water. and protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents." writes Matt Wasson of iLoveMountains.org.
"The good news is that Representatives Frank Pallone and Dave Reichert are preparing to introduce the Clean Water Protection Act in Congress. Already, 91 of their fellow members of Congress have agreed to co-sponsor the CWPA when it is introduced. Is your representative one of those co-sponsors? Click here to find out:
"If your representative isn't on the list, please take a moment to email and ask them to support the CWPA and to take a stand," by clicking the same link:
"You may also help move the CWPA through Congress by joining the 4th Annual End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington, taking place March 14-19th," writes Wasson.
As I wrote to my state Rep. Richard Montgomery, "a bulldozer, dynamite crew and dump truck is not a jobs program, it's pillage by industry insiders at the expense of everyone else."
Please help put America on a clean energy track and fight the destruction of our world.
Thanks and God Bless.
Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, short story writer and the founding editor and publisher of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of literary stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Michigan Journalism Fellowship, a Golden Presscard Award and the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize. He is finishing a novel, "Orchid of the Orchid Lounge," set in his native Tennessee and Iraq. His book of selected journalism, "Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes, the Best Writings About People" by Don Williams, is due a second printing.
For more information, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit the NMW website at www.NewMillenniumWritings.com.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
I am milking chapter 31 for reasons Iím afraid may depress me, and you. What am I so damn afraid of? I suppose I fear really delving into Jacob. I suppose I fear the end. I suppose I fear my own commitment to this book. Whatever it is, Iíve got to get out of this damn cave. Iím stuck in a cave both literally and figuratively. Yesterday they found themselves a helluva snake Ė which is what Charles Flint asked for. They found a huge snake but did not manage to catch it. It has escaped into the cave and now they have to go after it because it is THE snake I need. It is the snake that will live in Jacobís unused coffin, and the snake that, well, now Iím thinking too far ahead.
I need this snake and it wonít come easy to them because it is old and over seven feet long and they have come into its world. If they manage to catch it must be on its terms. I cannot allow one man and one girl to traipse into a den of serpents and just walk away with a huge snake. I simply cannot allow that to happen. This snake must fight. This snake must assert its right to live where it belongs. I am being told by Lane Zachary (my agent at the time) that every chapter is big, every moment is big. I am being told there is too much drama and perhaps there is, but this snake and this cave have their own ideas Andrew. It needs to be as difficult for me to write my way out of it as it is for my characters to get out of it. This is no ordinary cave I have found in the North Georgia Hills, this is a sacred place and will not give up her secrets easily Ė even to an Indian who knows and respects it. This should be how it always is. We should struggle like mad for what we want. We must fight for what is good.
Now Iíve lost my train of thought. This is the danger of working in a small cafť. When it gets noisy my ears perk up and Iím in listening mode and then my brain switches away from the work. You must be frustrated by me. Iím a rambling fool.
Must finish (chapter) 31 today. All there is left to do is wrap up the snake hunt and go back for some appropriate bible verses. So today that will be done and there will be no more excuse, I will go back to Jacob and Charles and John, and kill one, elevate another and relegate the third to apostle status. You guess which is which.
Just one more thing. People are always talking about Hemingwayís prose as being terse and lean, and this is true to a point. There are many fine examples of this in his work. But there are also many examples of the exact opposite. I came across a passage today in Green Hills of Africa that would put Cormac McCarthy to shame. Iím talking about a sentence a page and half long Ė beautiful prose, wonderful writing, but not at all what one would expect from Hemingway. And this is not an anomaly. Nor are his use of adverbs; which the myth claims he abhors. He uses both long sentences and adverbs often, but masterfully, so as not to draw attention to themselves and much can be learned from this.
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A Serpentís Journal
Excerpts, February 8-11, 2002
South Park Cafť, San Francisco
I have taken a big detour with this chapter in the cave and I canít help thinking that it will get cut. I think about this a lot now Ė about what will be cut out Ė and it depresses me because I put so much into every little sentence. But this is really the part I love most about this, the construction elements of building and shuffling and rewording and reading aloud and tweaking and polishing and then letting it sit for awhile like a bowl full of yeast feeding on sugar-water and then coming back to it yet again until it is just right. This is the real writing I think, the work after the original thought. Crafting the thought. If I have any talent, this is where it lies, in this part of the process. Give me the raw materials for a story and I can build a good one. Please tell me that one day I can work with you on a story, just one is all I ask, a gem of a short story, a miracle of a piece. Lord how I yearn to work on a short again. I hope that what I am going through now will help me and make me a better short story writer. This novel business is not for a manic, impatient writer like me.
It is a fine morning. Skies are blue with only the long wispy clouds that mean good weather to come. It is bright, so bright that one is forced to wince and hold a hand to the brow in order to see. I did not finish chapter 31 yesterday. Perhaps I got too cocky. Iím having some problems with Magdalena because I still donít know her yet and Iím having problems within the confines of the cave. Logistically, I have three people down there and I have to get two of them into a small chamber where there are snakes who are down here near a hot-spring keeping warm. I had thought that this might be the easiest kind of writing because outside [the outdoors] is my element. Once Iím in the natural world, I am at home, but Georgia is not my home and I wish to God I could have spent a few days in the woods there before tackling this book. I want to know the trees and the topography. I want to feel the quality of the air. Maybe my next novel can take place in California, or upstate New York which are the two worlds I feel I know better than any, including my own inner landscape.
It occurred to me that I am wring this for many reasons, some of them hidden to me. I of course want to tune up before working, and I want to summarize my thoughts, thus distilling them. Also, I think I am trying to convince myself that I am sane. And there are other things going on here too. Will I ever read this once I am done? Will anyone else? Who knows. But I know one thing, Steinbeck helped me with his letters to Covici, and perhaps one day I can help someone too. This has become part of the process now. I hesitate to stop for fear of jinxing the work.
Okay, now Iíll work. I am in a different cafť, one much quieter Ė though quite a distance from home. And they make the best coffee here. It is dangerous, for I will drink too much coffee.
If this thing ever gets done itíll be a miracle straight from God himself. This book has no business being completed, with my life the way it is, all odds are against it and I suppose this is why I persevere. I am stubborn like you would not believe. I simply will not give up. But I will give up this ridiculous tirade. I must finish 31 today. I must. I have milked it far too long. I have milked this book far too long, I must make better progress and work harder. The problem is I am not reading anymore. I need to be reading and Iím spending all my time reading Steinbeck's journal and the bible and Hemingwayís politically incorrect hunting journal. None of this inspires. The bible a bit. The Steinbeck a bit but I need more. Man this is turning into a rant but I must need to rant. God how I wish I had a real friend Andrew. Okay Iím done. I hope you donít even read this one, I have nothing to say today, not here, perhaps it will all come out through my fingers.
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His uncle sat the horse on the rise above Bristol and gestured with one hand to the expanse before them. He swept his hand across the horizon and turned to the boy who stood rapt before this new marvel in his only suit of clothes.
"This is your life now, Johnny", he said. "Here lies your fate. The destiny of all true sons of England."
He clucked with his tongue at the horse and the cart moved down the muddy road with a wobble and creak. The boy stood the whole way, making a conscious effort to feel the ground below the wheels. To feel the earth. They spoke not a word as they wound their way to the wharf where the sound of men drowned out the sound of surf. The boy saw the ships and their sailors, every man jack of them alive as he had never seen men living, their bodies strong, their eyes happy in their work, their skin glowing and as tan as a saddle. He saw the yawning gun-ports of the ships and the peeking iron muzzles with their black gaping holes of death, cold now and oiled to a high sheen, and he saw the carpenters at work, the boson and their mates, with hammer and adze amidst the flying chips of wood, scores of men at earnest fitting. He saw the reefers high above hum unfurl the great spreads of canvas that flapped and thundered like a corps of drums and he was at once excited and afraid. His life now.
The cart pulled up before a berth where a three-decker lie at lading, a monster of a ship as tall as a mountain, whose rigging and decks were filled with the shouts and activities of seamen. They stood before a be speckled old man in a black frock coat with shiny brass buttons and a snow-white wig who sat before a ledger propped on a folding table. His uncle pushed him forward and cleared his throat. The man glanced up at the boy with a sour look on his face and a smudge of black ink on his upper lip. He extended his hand and the boy moved to shake it but the man was not interested in such greetings and reached out to his uncle who produced a folded letter secured with a red wax seal.
"Name", the man said.
The boy could not speak. He felt the beating of his heart in his chest.
"Name", the man repeated.
"Silver", his uncle said for him. "John W. Silver. Signing on as mid-shipman, 3rd class".
The man cracked the seal on the letter written by the boyís father before he died. He scanned the note and nodded at the boy and entered his name in his ledger and spoke again no more.
"Now, you behave yourself Johnny, his uncle said. Make your father proud. Youíll be back in three years, God willing, and youíll be back a man, which is more than I can do for you."
He dropped a few coins into the boyís hand, and gave him his fatherís old greatcoat and his saber, which he raised from its scabbard so that the boy could see the first few inches of white steel .
"Remember this well Johnny", he said. "Take good care of your sword and your sword will take good care of you".
And he shook the boyís hand and he turned and the boy watched him climb into the cart with the horse and he watched him until he vanished in the throng of men, until the hoof beats were no more. He never laid eyes on his uncle again.
There was a moment when he thought of running, but the sound of the ship and the smell of it overwhelmed that urge and the moment passed. The ship had claimed him as her own, and the sea hers, and for the rest of his days those two great creations, one of man and one of God, would vie for his life and fight for his soul, until he was broken and cursed, disfigured and damned, and a boy like himself would come to redeem him.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
There is a state of mind I strive for, but which I cannot turn on and off at will, and this is a deep, deep sadness, a rosy melancholy that keeps me on the verge of tears. This is where I want to be when I am writing and God only knows what triggers it but today it is here, it is here, it is here. Itís a poetry kind of feeling, a glorious blue mood that calls to mind a steady rain and the sounds of the wind and sea. The key is not to think about it but to let it flow and here I am thinking when I should be writing, so let me go and do that and I will report back to how it all went. It is two minutes before nine now, and Iím nursing this first cup of coffee Ė and it is coffee, straight coffee. Here I goÖ.
It is noon now. I wrote six hand-written pages in my notebook. This is a good day. But I did not finish the chapter as I had wished. I really wanted to finish because it is an exciting chapter where Baxter Dawes takes Magdalena Flint into an Indian cave to find a special snake. Itís very Tom Sawyer-ish. I really like all the things that are happening outside the main story-line. I genuinely like Baxter Dawes, he is developing into someone I truly care about. Which is too bad, because he may have to pay the ultimate price. For that, he may have to die.
Thursday, February 7, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco
Today I will finish chapter 31, and I must do this because the following chapter is beginning of the end. Meaning, things will start to happen now that will lead to resolution (resolution of what?) and Jacob will blossom (blossom into what?) and the answers to all the questions I have raised will be answered (but what questions have I raised?).
Many times, when I get sidetracked, possibilities reveal themselves. So I do not allow myself to get too concerned when I take detours away from the plot (as I have done this entire week). But I still have much trouble with the truth. I still do not know what the truth is in relation to this story, and maybe Andrew, I do not even know what the truth is as it pertains to myself and the world in general. But this is far too deep and too much of a Ďtherapistísí moment to get into here. But I will tell you this, I will tell you about something I felt yesterday, and maybe you will understand my state of mind.
I went to a discount bookstore. But it was not even a bookstore, it was a temporary bookstore. Some empty retail location leased out to some book distributor trying to dump overstock. Anyway, this was a big, big mistake. I would sooner have gone into a city morgue the day after a deadly fire. For most of what I saw there was failure. Novels that did not sell. Novels that were perhaps well written but poorly titled, or poorly jacketed, or poorly marketed, or ill-timed Ė and surely there were many which were in fact poorly written, but it did not matter why they were there. They were dead. They were corpses, and there were so many, so many books, so many novels, so manyÖand among them, were six copies of Kathy Hepinstallís Absence of Nectar. Now let me tell you Andrew, it was as if I had stumbled upon her nude and murdered body in a cornfield. I am not exaggerating, this is not me trying to be dramatic to make a point. My heart sunk, my eyes tingled at the corners and my body made every preparation it could to sob. I bought one Andrew, I bought one for six dollars. I wanted to buy them all. And I flipped open the dust jacket, and I read the acknowledgments and looked at her picture and my hopes and dreams came crashing down like the World Trade Center tower number two.
Ah Jesus, this canít be good for me. This is no way to start the day. Why am I doing this? Maybe itís so that I can be humbled again, and be warned. And then, among the stacks I found a hard-copy of All the Pretty Horses, and I read the first paragraph, and by God I did weep Andrew, I wept at the simple genius of it, I wept at the truth of it, at the fact that what McCarthy says is not thought of and constructed, but felt, it comes from the dark place and opens the trap door beneath the readerís feet ďÖ.this is not sleep, this is not sleep.Ē
And so we go on.
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