Friday, January 13, 2017

A Sane Environment for Writing

My wife recently said that I am most prolific in my writing when my outside environment is orderly and predictable. "If there's nothing outside that is distracting or disrupting, then you feel completely free to put your attention inside and create."

I hadn't thought about my writing in exactly that way, but I think there's a lot of truth in her observation. When I was teaching full time, I knew exactly when I was going to write, to the minute--usually early in the morning at home and for a few minutes each day during my prep period at school. My goal each week was to write a thousand words from Monday through Friday, and a thousand words over the weekend--2,000 words a week. Ten months at school would lead to 80,000 words.

Also, when I was caregiving my first wife who had cancer, I wrote very little. I was very, very busy, and very, very focused. Now I have focus on my mom (92 years old), and a few other family items, not as intense as with my first wife, but I still see the truth of my wife's insight. I'm slowly moving in the direction of finding my stride, my rhythm of life and writing. I'm turning sixty-five next month, so I'm working through insurance issues, and I'm still enjoying the freedom to be more physical and to enjoy outdoor activities such as bicycle camping and gardening. (Not too much of either during the winter here in SE Iowa, although some bundled up biking!)

I revising a flash fiction story right now to submit to an online magazine. Short story writing is enjoyable right now because the commitment is more short term. Writing within my Dragons of Blood and Stone universe allows my creative juices to flow. I can look at the map and ask myself, "Now what would be going on in that area?" I find the map I've developed a great source of inspiration.

Some writers can write no matter what is occurring in their lives. I can do that, I have just chosen not to. I've always felt that writing is not my total life, that my life includes other avenues of expression. I'm looking forward to writing, just as I'm looking forward to many other pursuits.

Perhaps some time in the future, someone will say, "How much could he have written if he'd really pushed himself?" I understand that, but if someone who really knows me were to hear that comment, I think the reply would be, "Tom is interested in his total life, not just his life as a writer."

There's a certain romance to the troubled, starving, suffering artist persona. There's also a certain anguish, which I'd just as soon avoid. Every life needs a little tomfoolery!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Fire in a Nutshell, poems by Bill Graeser

At poetry readings, Bill Graeser doesn't read his poems, he recites them. His eyes with the audience, owning his words from memory, he speaks to his listeners, shares his experience with every syllable.

I find reading his book, Fire in a Nutshell, produces a similar effect. His cadences of language produce a viable buy-in of ownership, although "there is no shareholder, no overhead but the sky," to quote from Graeser's introductory poem, "These Are Mine."

These poems find the good and grand in the world, and proclaim quietly that the simple and the mundane are not lacking. It is our vision that is lacking, our attention. Many of his poems point out the celestial in the pedestrian--"Well, now, would you look at that!" He raises and uplifts our everyday lives, and I thank him for his work.

Take the poem "Socks," for instance. He gives a view of life, somewhat pungent, somewhat humorous, and richly insightful. Socks are "underwear for the feet" and "hiding places for holes and smell-bad." There are drawers full of socks--and then the poem turns, like a classic Petrarchan sonnet, to a deeper, more universal meaning, of those without socks and shoes, who dream of socks and cowboy boots; of peasants, with "cracked and calloused feet," dreaming the dreams of kings.

These poems take us beyond ourselves, as in the poem "Cleaning Fish," a task best done with "a knife in one hand, a cigarette in the other." But there is another perspective, how some find a way, like fish in water, to swim the world, to "enter with their whole body the sea. I have seen them--their eyes blazing, the hooks gone." This, too, is our world, our possibility.

Reading the poems instead of just hearing them recited also provides a chance to acknowledge Graeser's craftmanship as a poet. His line breaks and stanzas, his use of imagery and sound ground his ideas in the sensual world. As readers, we are able to meet "the earth with our palms," to have fallen down and to have "smudged the lipstick of mud on our knees."

This poet's vision is broad enough to praise Grandma's '59 Oldsmobile, to lullaby Godzilla to sleep, to praise small pencils and the Irish jig, and to worship in the church of cows. It is a perspective that does not throw stones at tanks but does "write a poem for those who do."

There's a lot of good in these poems, and Bill Graeser has found it in our weedy, wondrous world, where "sunlight anoints" us. It's a good world, and we are told "the clouds unload their rain cargo for you as for the rest." I take solace in that.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Three Days Left for This Fund Raiser
Every day Morgan stands outside the men's dome on MUM campus, selling cookies and seeking donations for her course fee to learn the TM-Sidhis program. She's been doing this for over a month.

Imagine Morgan standing at attention behind her stool, holding a pie plate of cookies, her hood up, the faux-fur ruff whipped by the wind. Or don't imagine but head out at dawn to see her on duty.

In the rain. Surrounded by a white hard frost. Wind-blown and red-nosed.

I call this perseverance, and I hope Morgan Potts can receive the funds she needs to achieve her goal. Anyone who wants to contribute to her goal can do so at her Go Fund Me site.

Here is the online link:

As of today, Monday, she has three days left!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Words of Thanks

I wake in the early AM of this Thanksgiving Day.

In the dark enveloping warmth of bed, there are no responsibilities, nothing to do. I float in darkness, in nothingness, in consciousness. I'm surrounded by space, am space. I breathe--in, out. Such a simple expression of life.

I remember how a word, a phrase would come to me, and I would close my eyes and sink into those words, surrounded by space, the words becoming transparent, permeated by space, expressions of the ultimate essence of space. Just the words, the meaning, the being behind the meaning, being expressing qualities of itself.

I remember how my first wife Barbara would say, "Breathe, Tom. Remember to breathe."

Such practical, funny advice, including a bit of a poke with the sharp tip of the blade.

Breathe. Breath.

The meaning of the word inspiration: to take in spirit. To take in spirit, to express spirit. To be truly ourselves.

This is the nature of life. This is our purpose in life.

On this Thanksgiving Day, remember to breathe. Enjoy simplicity.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review: Prince of Outcasts

Prince of Outcasts, by S.M. Stirling, is the third book in the third cycle of his Change alter-reality, post apocalyptic fiction series. He's sixteen novels into the series now, where the laws of nature change and time/space is fractured.

Three novels--Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity, form a set about how Nantucket Island is sent back in time or into another time dimension. The remaining thirteen novels center on our known universe and world that has Changed, with electricity and a few other laws of nature being neutralized, and how the world fares. The first three books, beginning with Dies the Fire, follow the lives of those who live through the Change from Day 1. The next seven novels, beginning with The Sunrise Lands, chronicle the lives and events of the second generation of survivors, notably the character Rudy Mackenzie. The last three novels (and more to come, no doubt) follow the third generation.

Here are the ratings for the last three novels (linked to my reviews):
So, why three stars (a so-so rating) for Prince of Outcasts?

My evaluation of this novel is much the same as for The Golden Princess. Stirling is going to publish a Change novel once a year for a long time--so what's the rush? He is now not so much writing novels but an extended (and extensive) chronicle of an alternative reality. Sure, there's a story line, stuff happens, but there's also all that interesting anthropological detail about the development of ecosystems and cultures after the change. Let's include that, because if someone's read all the other books (including a short story anthology by various authors, The Change), then we've got 'em hooked. Right?

Prince of Outcasts, avoiding spoilers, is about Asia, post-apocalypse, and about bonny Prince John Arminger Mackenzie, who we can assume is the "outcast." There is an alternative storyline about Princess Orlaith, John's sister, and a Japanese princess/queen. And the anthropological detail is interesting, so thank you, S.M.

However, sometimes the detail is too detailed, so to speak, and the storyline drags. Six pages of description about when the two princesses hit town and what the town looks like are just too much. I could give more examples (too many more), but one gets the idea. There are places where the story's momentum bogs down.

Good and new elements have been added to the Change tome, though.

Pip, a descendant of British royalty stranded in Blackout Australia, is a scrappy and original addition to the series' characters, as is her protector/sidekick Toa, who appears to be a Maori warrior. The good ship Tarshish Queen and captain and crew provide good sailing adventure.  There are some episodes of good action and magical storm.

Personally, I found Stirling's development of the Far East setting rather bland, and his Eastern evil characters rather diffuse. And, to be honest, the protagonist, Prince John, is a bit of a bore--a young man just coming into his own time, and not quite there.

Ultimately, this novel is another transition piece, introducing new settings, new characters, and new conflicts. It is much like the introductory novel of the third cycle of the Change novels, The Golden Princess. If you've read the other novels, you'll enjoy Prince of Outcasts for some good moments interspersed with new places and people. If this were the only novel in the series you were to read, though, your reaction would be as the Beatles said in "Daytripper": you "took me half the way there now," S.M., you big teaser.

The novel even ends with a cliffhanger.

In all fairness, the second novel in this third Change cycle, The Desert and the Blade, was an excellent read that held up on its own and moved along at a reasonable clip.

OK, so I've read sixteen novels and one short story anthology about the Change (or, as they say in Oz, the Blackout). As a fan, I hope things work out for the descendants of the Change. As a writer, I hope things work out for Stirling and he cranks out another five-star novel with his next in the series. As a reader, I hope the next novel is a real page turner. This one, meh, wasn't that.