What a strange thing it is, to stand before a group of people unknown to you and read to them. There is nothing quite like it. You appear before a group of people and read from something painfully extracted from yourself. You read to them, for their approval, that which you’ve derived, at great cost, from your living. You let them hear, in your truest voice and intonation, your most secret, private thoughts and observations, gleaned from all your moments of pain and glory. You open your self. You expose the very essence of who you are. When you stand before a body of readers to share what you have written, honestly and with all your might, you stand naked and alone among the critics, judges and lords of the land to which you seek citizenship.
What an electrifying thing this is, to take what you’ve created in utter solitude that which you could not possibly conceive of being read by anyone, and to transmit it, via your mouth, to the minds and hearts of story-lovers whose names and lives are as mysterious as the very source of the words themselves. Can there to be a purer union than that of the reader who loves the act of reading and the listener whose passions are words and books? There symbiosis here, between the story-teller and the story-lover. There’s a flow of something, back and forth, a willingness to be part of the other, a desire to know and be known.
Here’s how it begins. Words lie on the page. You see the words there but for a moment there’s no reaction between mind and mouth, for a nanosecond there’s a terrifying sense of panic, as if you’ve lost the faculty to translate language into sound. There’s a moment when the words are legible and then there’s a moment when they blur into strange forms like ancient Greek or Celtic runes. So you breathe and you blink and you remember the very day you sat alone with a pen and a book of lined paper when those words, the ones right there below you, printed and no longer your own, first came to you, as mysteriously as they come to you now. You remember that they were given to you as a gift, but at the great cost of your full commitment to them. You remember that they came only one, two, three at a time like drops of water from a faulty valve. You didn’t understand them then and you seem not to understand them now and before you sits a small but patient crowd who have relinquished part of their afternoon, and part of their private joy - the sacred act of reading. They have turned that over to you, they are trusting you with that, allowing you to do for them what they have already mastered, and more than that, allowing you to transpose your voice, your sound, onto words that would otherwise become their own, so that forever you will be inseparable from everything stamped with your style and your name.
There’s a lot of pressure on a new writer. There’s a lot at stake. You want the world to read your book but you don’t want to beg for it, or sell hard. You want the book to come to readers naturally, on its own merits. A book is a personal thing. It’s not a patent-medicine or a Ginsu knife. You can’t sell a book any more than you can sell yourself as a friend. Friendships are formed through affinities between people. The relationship between a book and a reader is like a friendship. If there’s something about it that connects you, that resonates with you, then you can become its friend. Reading at bookstores is the only way a writer can truly connect with a reader. And one feels a great responsibility to those who come to listen. I’m humbled by it. A reading is a holy event. I approach even a small, intimate reading as if I was Martin Luther King mounting the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as if what I read actually means something, or might move someone. Because I want the reader-turned-listener to feel what I feel, to see what I see, to know what I know. I want us to be one.
The miracle of reading a book, the joy of it, is when the writer and the reader meet on the page and become one. When the reader and the writer meet face-to-face the connection between the story and the reader can be even more powerful. The human voice is beautiful and nuanced. It is suffused with so much emotion, so much meaning, that the pauses themselves can bear the significance of words. A breath can impart sense, a tremolo, a stutter - all become the vocabulary of the reader. Listen to Martin Luther King when he speaks. The null space is as powerful as the text itself. The void between words, the gestures, the movement of eyes, the hand at the brow, the tilt of a head. We see the words come to life. We see them wholly, and just as the writer intended.
Hemingway said that writing was simply, the greatest pleasure. I used to agree. Yes, there can be great joy in the writing but I tell you, there is greater joy in the reading of the writing, especially to an audience of eager listeners. The moment when the words truly come to life, and take on their fullest meaning, is that moment when they’re being shared, physically, between the writer and the reader hearing them for the first time. That is the magic of story-telling. The teller standing before the listener, fully involved in the telling. Bookstore readings are the sole vestige of our ancient story-telling traditions.
As I stood before a small group of listeners at Book Passage this Sunday past, I was aware that my voice was being broadcast not just in the small room at the back of the store, but throughout it. I was told the P.A. system was on low, everywhere, so that those browsing the stacks might hear and be drawn to the reading. And some were drawn. Some came and sat. Some stood for a few minutes and then wandered off. Some simply stood, new books in hand, watching, listening, becoming part of the story for a little while until I stopped, and closed my book and they walked off to once again resume the story of their own.
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I will tell you a secret in this last entry of mine here at Book Passage. I will tell you how I persevered through hundreds of days of confusion and doubt. I discovered (through an incredibly serendipitous moment) that I had a spiritual guide who seemed to be watching over me and providing me small doses of illumination and hope. His name is Jelaluddin Rumi.
The miracle of reading, and writing is the very real, visceral connection between the individual, who struggles to express and describe that which is the mysterious and unknowable, with the multitudes, who burn with the same curiosity and wonder, seeking some answers and affirmation to life through the words of those who’ve lived before, and reach out across time to bind together all lives ever lived with all minds blessed with the gift of thought and speech. Or, more simply put by my good friend Andrew Wilson: when the reader meets the writer on the page and (they)become the same being.
Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan in 1207, permeates every word I have written. His poetics are woven into Serpent Box. His observations on nature, human relationships and God are, miraculously, at one with my own. I feel as if we were born together. It is to Rumi I turn for strength and clarity and guidance, not just in my writing life, my in my total life.
I leave you, Book Passagers, with The Guest House, a poem that teaches us to wait and to open and to see all things as fodder for our souls.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be cleaning you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
Thank you to Coleman Barks for his wonderful translations, to the poet Michelle Murphy for giving me the gift of Rumi, to the street-poet Diamond Dave for pulling him out of my heart and to Book Passage for allowing me this opportunity to get on my little soapbox in this blog and for the chance to read to you today. See you at four.
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I had never dreamed of writing a novel. I wanted to write stories. I began by writing short pieces. Serpent Box itself began as a short story that was inspired by a photograph of a boy I saw in a book. The image I saw evoked a feeling and that feeling drove the creation of a story. All stories begin, for me, with a feeling, an emotional tug, a visceral pang. They begin in wordlessness. They begin in darkness. They strive toward light. My stories are phototropic.
I desire to create something like a dream, and I want to make it delicious, so delicious that you will want to read it again and again in order to savor it. This is what Cormac McCarthy is like for me, rich, succulent writing that is both intoxicating and informative to the story he’s conveying. In this way I seek to emulate McCarthy.
Many writers have left their mark upon me. I am an amalgam of those whose sensibilities jibe with my own. But no writer has had more impact on my writer’s psyche than Cormac McCarthy. He is, whether he likes it or not, my mentor. His cadence is biblical. His rhythm, hypnotic. His scope, vast. His dialog, terse and never unnecessary. When I read All the Pretty Horses, a bomb exploded in my head. This, I said to myself, is what I have been waiting all my life to read.
I am not comfortable with the idea of telling a story. I despise plot. I try to convey a sense of story, indirectly, through tone, mood, rhythm, language, and by rendering individual moments that, when juxtaposed, will create a greater and more meaningful whole that does tell a story – much like a film. In some ways I compose stories like a filmmaker, by employing a series of shots. A scene in a film does not require language to be understood. In film, language is secondary to image. I am image-oriented and wish to convey stark, crystal visuals that utilize sense to create a feeling of space and time more vivid than can be ordinarily imagined.
I cannot bear to write anything that feels written. Nor can I bear to read it. I want to be invisible to reader. I want to begin each story with a plunge into a wholly believable world. The first sentence, for me, must act like a vortex. It must capture you without you realizing you’re being captured, for only then can I show you what it is that I see in the story-world. The most difficult part of writing is conveying exactly what I see and feel to you. That is the essence of it all, sharing something I see vividly, and feel viscerally, with you. The trick is to get you to feel it as I feel it and understand it as I understand it. Not to teach, not to tell, but to show you what it is I see. I don’t want you to look at me, I want you to look at what I am looking at. Therefore I must be you and me. I must write as me and read as you.
I wrote Serpent Box to try and reconcile what I feel toward the mysteries of life and the universe, and the concept of God. I was searching for the meaning of faith, just as my young protagonist Jacob Flint embarks upon a quest for his own sense of meaning and purpose. Together, Jacob and I began a journey that helped us to make some sense out of life’s ironies and evils, in the face of its beauty and good. What does it mean to live?
I have used the word darkness to describe that which I write from, working toward a moment of illumination. Perhaps darkness is not the right word, a more accurate word is mystery. That which is unknown, and possibly unknowable, is what I seek to explore. I cannot know for fact that there is a God, but I do know as fact that there is a spiritual realm of energy that I cannot explain. I have seen it first-hand. I have been lucky enough to see a paranormal phenomenon, and not just see it with my eyes, but hear it and feel it pass through my body. That event changed my life, but I will not describe it here. I use it to explain how I look at the world and how I derive my spirituality. Einstein said:
“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”
Nature is the lens through which I do my small part to interpret the world. Religion, in Serpent Box’s case a very extreme religion, is the filter through which I attempt to glean notions of personal and spiritual faith. Childhood, specifically the transition from childhood to maturity, is the human condition through which I continually explores themes ranging from wonder and curiosity to humility and morality. Racism and violence are the millstones around the neck of mankind that I still cannot understand, nor accept, nor reconcile, and I wrestle with those demons in my writing, certainly in Serpent Box, which takes on the overlooked history of racial violence in America for which we have still not atoned.
So it is through the process of story-writing that I learn what it is I truly believe. My stories often begin in darkness, and sometimes they end there, but they do strive toward light. I hope that the process of writing will illuminate me, and thus you, the reader. Please forgive me if I fail. I have so, so much yet to learn.
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Now that I’m drawing nearer my reading at Book Passage I am nervous. I wonder if anyone other than my wife and children will be there to hear me read. Serpent Box is my first novel so I have not done many readings. Those I have done were attended by few. This is to be expected. No one knows who I am and very few know of the book. I, as many book store events managers have painfully reminded me, do not draw.
I discovered this the hard way at my first reading at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, a wonderful old bookstore. When I arrived that night I found a room full of empty chairs before a raised lectern with a microphone, beside which stood a tall glass of water. I waited for someone to arrive, incredibly nervous. I had rehearsed all that day in my hotel room and was confident I could deliver an engaging read, but I do get stage fright, and worried that my voice might fail me. I was kindly told that on such occasions, for a new author, that it was possible no one would show, and at ten minutes past the time set up for the event it was apparent that would be the case.
In some ways I was relieved. But I had come all this way, and spent money, and practiced, so of course I was also crushed. In many ways I began writing simply so I could read to other people, for reading aloud brings me great joy. At quarter to eight it was clear there’d be no reading, so I signed the thirty books they had sitting there at the empty autograph table and I shook the kind hand of the events manager as he consoled me. He was very sweet, and he promised to have me back for my next book. Yes, I said, for my next book.
I packed up and put on my coat and walked the loneliest, saddest ten yards of my life to the front door. As I passed through the doorway, a woman stopped me. She was holding a copy of Serpent Box in her hand and she was reading the back cover, which bears my photograph. She grabbed me by the arm and said, hey, wait, aren’t you the guy reading tonight? Yes, I said. I was supposed to read tonight but no one showed up. She smiled. I showed up, she said.
We walked downstairs to the empty room with the chairs, and the lectern and the glass of water and this very nice woman, this angel, sat down in the front row and gave me her full attention. I read to her. I read my heart out to an audience of one. It was a very moving, very intimate experience, and it took great effort to keep from weeping. The connection I felt with her, a stranger with whom I shared the love of books, was one I will never forget.
As words flow through your mouth they become tangible, visceral, and somehow changed. Reading aloud enhances the pleasure of words and the impact of a story. Story-telling began, after all, as an oral medium. The spoken word, like music, fills the heart and permeates the flesh. Any parent who reads to her child a well-written book can attest to this feeling. Anyone who has sat and listened to his grandfather, as I have, tell the story of the Normandy landing and the march to Berlin, or some other tale of war, can speak to the power of such a telling.
The human voice is the blood of our souls. The language of the face, and the eyes, imbues nuance and emotion that defies the printed page. Reading aloud connects the reader to the listener, and the listener to the reader and both to the story in a most powerful way, and if the reader happens to be the writer as well, the voice becomes fixed and inseparable so that all his future works will carry it and become suffused with the inflection, tone, cadence and spirit that was intended by its creator.
Listening to a writer read their writing is the most intimate, instant and illuminating of shared artistic experiences. We cannot watch a painter paint or a filmmaker edit or a photographer composing a shot. Live music is the only parallel I can draw, and the performance of a band or vocalist who is on their game is as powerful if not more so, but bear in mind the writer is stripped naked, unaccompanied, completely alone. And likely, he or she has spent the last several years creating what is being read. I can still recall listening to Michael Cunningham read from The Hours, and I get the chills. I still see his face and hear his pain. What a wonderful gift he gave me. I will carry his voice forever.
When I completed my reading that night at Elliott Bay, I was sweating and trembling. The excerpt I read is emotionally draining. It is twenty-seven minutes describing the journey of a boy back to the place of his birth – the hollow of an ancient oak tree, where blacks had been lynched as recently as the day before. It was not an easy chapter to write, and it does not get any easier to read over time. I relive that journey anew every time I read it, and every time I read it I feel something different.
I consider myself very lucky and indeed blessed to have been given this book to write. And reading it to book-lovers is a privilege that I cherish. I hope you will be there this Sunday, but if you are not, I will be okay. I now know that an audience of one is fine, and that one eager listener is all I need and all I could ever ask for.
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"If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge." Rilke
So that is what I did. As I groped for images and ideas through which the story of Jacob Flint could be revealed, I began each scene, each chapter, as close to the natural world as I could get and tried to view the essence of each person and each scene through nature. Nature, which was here before us. Grass, trees, streams and sky. Birds. Insects. Light. Nature is the most prominent character in Serpent Box. It is the fabric that binds the people and events and the medium through which everything in the story transpires. The natural world, the woods, is a place I admit, I feel more at home in than in the world that people have constructed to combat it. Write what you know, they say. This is what I know.
It is no accident I chose to write a book set in the wilds of Appalachia. I am drawn to places dominated by trees and ruled by wildlife. My people are very much a part of their environment. They use the raw materials available to them to heal and cure, eat and worship. Perhaps my favorite person in Serpent Box is the mystical granny-woman, Gertie Bates, a midwife and folk-healer who acts as Jacob's oracle and spiritual mentor. Small, frail and well over ninety years old, Gertie Bates is a woman of the earth. Part yarb-doctor, part spiritualist, she draws all her strength and all her wisdom from the very ground she walks upon. She trusts what the world has given her and believes in the powers of animals, plants, trees and stars.
We are a part of nature, never separate from it, never independent of it, and when we look at ourselves through the lens of the natural world something miraculous happens. We are humbled. We are soothed. We gain perspective. And, we experience that rarest of emotions; joy. When we begin to truly recognize how incredible it is to simply be alive, to be a thinking, wondering organism capable of understanding our inner workings and our origins, when we think about DNA and atoms and weather and wildlife, we cannot help feeling lucky, being grateful, being cowed. Walt Whitman says:
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars, And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest, And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven, And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery, And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue, And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."
It is that supreme humility, that child-like wonder, which keeps us grounded and helps us to maintain the feeling that life is a precious, great gift.
In Serpent Box, the Cherokee snake-hunter Baxter Dawes says:
"... a man in the woods is about the purest thing there is in the world and the closest he can come to knowing God. A man can never buy with money this thing that the Lord gives him for free...The sense of awe and respect one derives from the trees and the earth and all things that dwell in between..."
I have tried to instill this reverence for the world and its wonders in all the people who inhabit Serpent Box. Be it the army field surgeon Sanchero, ruminating on the wastes of war, the redeemed murderer Sylus Knox, who recognizes and reinvents himself through a reconnection with the earth, the fallen preacher Hosea Lee, whose self-imposed exile in the woods leads him to greater truths, and to Jacob Flint himself, who takes refuge and solace in the nature that surrounds him.
The way I wrote Serpent Box, the method I used to figure out how to write it, was to trust in nature and to try to serve that which is poor, humble and too often, overlooked. The result was that I was staggered, and more importantly, I am no longer an infidel to that which has created me.
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