Thursday, July 23, 2009

Writing and Reading as an Imaginative Act

The problem with unsuccessful stories is usually simple: they are boring, a consequence of the failure of imagination. To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer. Tim O’Brien

I have a simple criterion for fiction; it should delight. As a participant in innumerable writing groups, much of what I’ve read falls short of that standard. This isn’t because of the journeymen status of the writer, but of a lack of the writer’s imagination in the story. In the absence of the imagination the reader is confronted with mere words on the page. What can catapult reading from the act of “running eyes over words” to the experience of a “seamless dream” is imagination.

In our current “based-on-a-true-story” preference we evaluate our stories by their adherence to the facts. We frequently read critiques of such pieces singling out a lack of fidelity to “reality” as the damning dismissal of the piece in question. We confuse facts with truth, and in doing so diminish our expectations for fiction to those of mere reportage.

Tim O’ Brien’s essay Telling Tails appearing in the current Atlantic Monthly( and I urge you to follow the link. READ IT) explores imagination as the raison d’erte of a fiction writer. Good fiction is not merely a narrative, a plodding recitation of details that paint a scene in which the merely mundane events of life occur to a character. It is not a presentation of “sincerity” but, as Jim Harrison has argued, a presentation of the quality of the writer’s mind on the page, a presentation capable of engaging the reader.

O’Brien insists this does not rule out realism. Only think of the widely read Hemingway story Hills Like White Elephants and you can see O’Brien’s point. All of the oft touted bromides of writing groups – the telling detail, verisimilitude—have their place in fiction, but they are not enough. As David Byrne of the Talking Heads so aptly put it:

facts all come with points of view/facts don’t do what I want them to.

And what I yearn for in fiction is that dream wherein I'm transported, and in the act of being so moved, am also transformed.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

More Thinking Than Doing. A Report From the Land of Good Intentions

In the days since my last post I’ve considered writing on a number of topics. I’ve thought I’d comment on Stephen Kinzer’s book Overthrow America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq as it skillfully places recent U.S. foreign adventures into historical context; I’ve thought about expressing my admiration for Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried. In my opinion this book is tied for 1st Place with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American for best novel regarding the Vietnam War; Having recently (re)experienced a debilitating bout of back pain I thought I’d write more fully on that experience; I recently applied for a writer’s residency and thought the process worthy of comment; And in the past week, I’ve learned of a “new” approach to the treatment of addiction that looks promising, Integral Recovery and contacted its founder John Dupuy to explore professional opportunities.

All of that is to say I’m still here. Still churning with ideas and intentions. Still coming up short, however, on follow-through!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


In Sunday School I was taught "Cleanliness is next to Godliness."
When I left dirty clothes on the floor of my bedroom instead of putting
them in the laundry hamper, Mom said, "Spare the rod, spoil the child"
and laid wood across my ass.

In contemplation, I admired the symmetry of my fingers
The middle ones longer than the rest.
Raising them toward God I said, "Things are sure a mess down here,
you old fraud."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I Need a Remedy For What's Ailing Me

In the absence of any upshot from last Friday’s MRI, I remain ignorant of causes and cures. I put a call into the doctor and I continue to wait for his call.

Yesterday, I returned to work. Within an hour I was a caricature of Igor, the hump-back lab assistant and major domo to Dr. Frankenstein, dragging my left arm after me like a sack of laundry and mouthing, “right this way, master” to my boss who looked on appalled by my antics. I wonder if Herr Doktor could bolt a new arm/neck onto my carcass and send me forth to frighten villagers and spawn a host of B-grade movies?

Speaking of entertainment, tonight, as part of the continuing celebration of 14 years of marriage to T, we are going to see Dr. John. I’m counting on this doctor to have a gris gris bag of musical voodoo with which to cure what ails me.