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Serpent Blog - The Joy of Reading Aloud - Book Passage Part IV

Serpent Blog

The Joy of Reading Aloud - Book Passage Part IV 

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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Staggering Sextillions of Infidels 
The Book Passage Blogs: Part IV

"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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Groping Your Way in Faith - The Book Passage Blog Part 3 
How does a story form? Somehow, disparate words and images coalesce into something that resembles narrative thought. Stories are mysterious things. Stories that do not come directly from our actual lives are even more mysterious, they’re mystical.

Often I am asked how I, a New Yorker, wrote a story about a spiritually gifted Appalachian boy. I do not know the answer. The story was given to me as a gift. When you take a writing class you are often told to write what you know. I did not know the world depicted in Serpent Box. I did not know the good people of the hills and hollows of Tennessee. I did not know a Holiness sign follower or a snake handler. But what I did know, and do know, is what it feels like to not know. I know what it is to question one’s faith. I vividly recall the helplessness of being a child. I have clear memories of what it means to be shunned, ostracized and beaten, simply for how you look. I have never let go of that feeling of ignorance that seems to permeate your very existence when you are a boy up against a very large and confusing world. I knew my focal character, Jacob Flint, perhaps better than I knew myself.

Writing a story is a quest. You search, often blindly, for answers and direction. You seek out the next word, the next sentence. You build paragraphs and pages out of images – at least I do. I see a thing, then I record the thing. When the writing is going well it is not so much thinking as it is seeing. I will often close my eyes and try to squeeze an image out if the words themselves cease to flow. It is amazing that this actually works. It’s almost as if you can pry that tiny door between your conscious and unconscious mind open, for just a moment or two, to let the truth escape. It rarely stays open long. And then you are faced with the blankness that lies beyond your last completed sentence. That blankness, that null space, can feel as vast as the cosmos.

I wrote Serpent Box alone, having written nothing of significance before it, having not studied writing beyond a few night courses, having no background in English Literature or journalism. I had no idea what to do or how to do it. There were times I faltered and shut down. But I had angels watching over me, angels in human form, who gave me more than encouragement, they gave me keys and crutches.

My dear friend Andrew L. Wilson, who has written one of the best novel’s I’ve ever read (remarkably, as yet unpublished) would often give me the small bits of advice and love I needed to get through each day. He sent me this quote during a very dark time during the writing of Serpent Box when I was desperately searching for a path to send the story. You see, I made up Serpent Box in the moment. I had no plot, no vision, no clue as to what the story should be or where it might take me. I simply sat down each day and wrote intuitively, building on that which I had written the previous day. Often that would lead to dry spells and moments of blind panic. What would I do if the next piece of the story didn’t show itself? I learned the following lesson late in the game, but hold it now as one of the most important concepts I’ve ever ‘learned’ about the art of writing:

“To ask for the whole thing cut and dried at once is a great error. There is no use sitting down waiting for clarity, believing that your work will reveal itself in a flash and show you the roads to it free of charge. You have to grope your way in good faith and be content with little. In that way you keep your strength and courage alive. One frequently meets a type of very talented artist or poet lacking the capability for such slow, sinewy search, unwilling to put his hand to his work until he has got it as a kind of gift, and in some mysterious manner - with all difficulties and doubts blown away. Meantime, however, the strength seeps out of him simply because of lack of exercise, just like a muscle languishing away when it lies unused, and people with much less talent but with more contentment [desire] surpass him easily. Whoever believes himself wise and "a genius" once and for all, has closed all windows and doors to the truth, but whoever is aware of his weaknesses has opened them and will be rewarded.”

Vilhelm Ekelund



Once I accepted this, and I did so instantly, I soon realized that the missing ingredient in my ‘process’ was faith. The belief that the answers would come. The feeling that somehow a spark would reveal itself. A trust in the natural world and the random order of things, and that simply by living, observing, listening, moving through life and interacting with it, one would discover ways and means in which to push the story forward. Because I was pulling the story out of myself I needed faith in myself and in that amazing serendipity that always seems to deliver what you need when you humbly and earnestly ask for it, when you seek it, when you grope your way in good faith.


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Wordlessness - Part 2 of the Book Passage Blogs 
This is the second entry in the Book Passage series that I re-post here leading up to my appearance at the famed Book Passage book store in Marin County, CA...

"From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?"

Ernest Hemingway


How do we know how to live? We observe others living. And we glean much from that, but our spiritual selves, our inner voices, our minds, are often difficult to verify and affirm. How do we know if what we are thinking is right? How do we know if what we feel is true and real?

All my life I’ve turned to three things for this validation, inspiration and the joy that is my natural Prozac – music, nature and books.

But of those three only books can fully articulate that which I feel in my own heart but cannot describe or name. The words and observations of women – Virginia Woolf, Ayn Rand, Carson McCullers. The words and thoughts of men – Jack London, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway. So many others. So many others. Who was it that gave voice to my boy’s soul as it cried out to ask of the world what it means to be alive? J.D. Salinger, Hermann Hesse, George Orwell. Time and time again what saves me from despair, and even death itself, are the words of those who’ve struggled before me to understand this life. If not for books, I tell you plain, I would not be alive.

Writing was a gift given to me by something outside of myself that I can feel but cannot name. At times, while writing Serpent Box, I was astounded at the glory and grace of finding words and discovering images that seemed to come from places I had been to in another life altogether. It was never easy, never simple and rarely fun. I struggled to maintain my faith in myself and I often wept and often prayed. Never in my life did I pray with such fervor and conviction. I prayed for the strength to endure the doubts that many expressed toward my undertaking - the insane notion that I could write a book. I prayed for the courage to face the blank page and draw something from it that was real and alive. I prayed for the story itself, that it might come again and fill me. And the strange thing about all that praying was that I was not, and still am not, a religious person.

I wanted to write a story that would help me to understand what life means. I wanted to answer the questions that plague those of us who choose to participate fully in the act of living. What am I, really? Why am I here? Is there a spiritual force behind my existence, or am I some arbitrary package of quanta and energy fields with an evolved mind designed to hunt and procreate more efficiently? In order to even attempt to get answers to those questions, I had to dig deeper into myself than I had ever dug before. And it hurt. And it weakened me. And it caused me to spiral into mini-depressions that were often crippling.

I opened this blog entry with another quotation from my wall of courage. I would turn to this wall before writing, every single day, and read a few words passed down from men and women who endured the soul-wrenching process of extracting from them a new form of truth.

Hemingway has been for me a great mentor. I choose not to focus on his private life, however, but the words he assembled into stories about people moving through life. The quote above has helped me to understand why I have chosen to dedicate myself not just to writing, but to writing beyond my ability, and to strive for something familiar yet wholly new. I was searching for my own faith.

Serpent Box focuses on a group of people who believe in the affirmable, physical manifestation of God on Earth. Holiness Sign-Followers believe in Biblical inerrancy. They believe that the Bible is literal truth, specifically the words of a resurrected Jesus to the unbelieving apostles. He told them that those who believe will be protected from harm by the Holy Spirit of God. This is an extreme example of faith and I was drawn to it for many reasons, but mostly because I had none. Or perhaps I had misplaced it. I lacked faith in myself and faith in the moral universe. Yet I felt within me a physical and emotional pang. I felt a pulling, a tugging, a calling from something clearly outside myself yet connected to me. Serpent Box is a direct manifestation of those feelings.

I am going to close today’s entry with another of my precious quotations. Because these words, these thoughts from other writers, meant so much to me, and in fact buoyed me and kept me on track through the dark times, I want to share them with you so that you can get a sense for what it is I have tried to do in Serpent Box and my other writing. I have tried, and am still trying, to put into words those feelings that rise and rush through me when I see a bee alight upon a flower or a beam of sunlight refracted through the surface of a pond. Whether I have succeeded or not only you can judge.

“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through – not ever much.” John Steinbeck


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Writing as Religion - The Book Passage Blog 
Dear Readers:

I am re-posting here my daily blog entries on Bookpassage.com, which I am doing courtesy of Book Passage leading up to my appearance there this coming Sunday. Please forgive the duplication, but I would like all SerpentBlog readers to have a chance to read what I feel is an important thread...

Hello Book Passage readers. As a writer fortunate enough to live in Marin County I have the unique privilege of living near one of the world’s truly great book stores. Book Passage is a bastion of words and ideas, stories and passion, community and ideals, that embodies not just what it means to be a reader, but what it means to be a participant in life itself. For it is through books that human thought and the human experience flow between us and connects us all.

This coming Sunday I have been granted the distinct honor of reading to you from my debut novel Serpent Box. I will be blogging here all week in hopes of sharing with you what the book means to me, but before I do that I hope to convey to you not just plot and theme, but the very essence of writing and reading as I have come to understand those twin pursuits.

Two days ago I read from Serpent Box to a small group of readers at Lee Booksellers in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a small store, tucked away in a strip mall and overshadowed by large chain retail establishments all around it. As I entered the store I quickly felt at home. I immediately sensed the pulse and unique personality of the place, and as I wandered the stacks I began to feel the tingling sensation of joy I get when surrounded by books and people who love them. Independent bookstores, to me, are churches. They are holy places. Each has its own aura of divinity and grace, and though this small store possessed no physical beauty, it radiated a light all its own. Though I get very nervous before a reading, I soon felt buoyed by what I can only describe as a shared bond of understanding for the importance and beauty of books.

At the end of my reading, one of my listeners asked me why and how I wrote my book. It is a question I get constantly and one whose answers always seem to change slightly in the telling. That is because the more I read from it, the more I reflect back upon it, and the more I speak with readers, the more I come to understand what I believe is my calling.

What I told this woman can best be summed up in a quotation I had posted above my writing space during the long and grueling years I spent crafting Serpent Box. It is from Seymour – An Introduction by J.D. Salinger, the single most influential writer in my life. The quote is an excerpt from a letter written by one brother to another, whose faith in his ability to write was waning, as is often the case during the creation of a book that one hopes will have meaning. Here is what Seymour told Buddy, and what I read back to myself almost every day:

“(When) you wrote down that you were a writer by profession, it sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It has never been anything but your religion. Never…..(and) Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? Let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form when you were writing it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished…I am so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”

I often feel lost and lose track of my true intentions, my original reasons for writing. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? Why do I spend all my free time dedicated to books and words and sentences?
It’s remarkable how often I re-discover the answers in you, the readers. I believe the readers in this world are the great hope of it. Readers, who are, more specifically, seekers, are people who care about other people.

If you are a reader, if you love books and stories, then you love the mystery of being alive, and of being human. It is the reader’s inherent curiosity about the human condition that drives her to stories about people, characters, and fictional human beings who are mosaics of herself, and who are struggling with the same questions about love and loss and faith and hope that we all struggle with.
Serpent Box is about faith, but not just religious faith. It is about faith in oneself and how we must all strive for it, fight for it, pray for it, work for it, every single day of our wonderful, terrible, miraculous lives.

It is hard sometimes, being alive. It is hard to grapple with the great questions that can never be answered within a mortal life – Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Thankfully, we have books to guide us. Thankfully, we have words and people who struggle with them, so that we can understand that we all have so much more in common with one another than we realize.

Books are my life. Words are the blood of my soul. Stories, as Tim O’Brien says, can truly save us. I write so I can live and so I can save myself from what can sometimes be a very sad world and a very destructive state of mind. But I am a reader first and a writer second. I could never have written Serpent Box without great writers, who came before me, and showed me how to live.

I imagine that some of you feel this way too. I look forward to meeting you next Sunday. Thank you Book Passage.


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