The Writing on the Wall

A Knight’s Tale is one of those movies that I missed out on, for the first ten or so years of its existence. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to know and recognize some of its many charms.

Of course, I love the character of Geoff Chaucer (Paul Bettany). He’s a down-on-his-luck writer, who falls in with the rag-tag traveling crew of faux knight Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein (Heath Ledger). Geoff is able to concoct the papers Sir Ulrich needs to “prove” his lineage, and he also uses his mad word skills to hype up the crowds in favor of Sir Ulrich.

This imaginative portrayal of the author of the famed Canterbury Tales strikes me as a true depiction of #writerslife. Centuries before hash tags were a thing.

I could probably go on about Chaucer, but I have another intention for this post. There’s a theme that comes up between Sir Ulrich (really, a peasant named William Thatcher), and his nemesis, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). A “real” count with the bloodline to prove it, and a true villain. Adhemar suspects Sir Ulrich is a phony. When Adhemar takes top prize in their first tournament match-up, he serves Ulrich the very ungracious insult:

“You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.”

This insult does eventually come around to bite Adhemar in the heinie. But again, I’m digressing.

The point I’m wanting to make: I hadn’t realized that “weighed and measured” was a biblical reference, until I encountered it both in Moby Dick, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s from the Book of Daniel, and the narrative account of Belshazzar’s feast. Apparently, everyone was enjoying themselves a little too much at this feast, when a mysterious hand appeared and wrote on the wall:

“Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”

Well, no one knew what it meant, not even Belshazzar’s wise men, and he was beyond freaked out. He sent for Daniel, who interpreted it as such:

  • mene — “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end”
  • tekel —  “you have been weighed. . .and found wanting”
  • upharsin — this one’s a little less clear to me, but, essentially, “your kingdom’s gonna be broken up, dude”

Melville uses “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” to foreshadow the fate of the Pequod. Dumas uses it in reference to the letter that denounced Edmond Dantes. That he eventually gets his hands on and uses in service of his vengeance.

Two big lessons I take from all this:

  1. “The writing on the wall” is literally mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.
  2. In fiction, (as in real life), karma can be a bitch.

Quarter Report 2019

Lacey Cypress

Hoping to find the exact path and the exact target week over week, quarter over quarter, is simply impossible. Despite knowing how to read the stars, sailors had to tack with the wind, leaving a wake like a zig-zag.–David Schwarz

David Schwarz is a founding partner of the ad agency HUSH. I encountered this quote last week, in a brief article he wrote for AdAge: “If I knew then what I know now … I’d sail more than strategize

Of course, the quote struck me as hugely relevant, with my propensity to “live my life a quarter mile at a time,” just like Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto. And, the timing was good, as I had planned to post a special “Quarter Report” this week, anyway.

What’s so special, you may ask? The specialness concerns the cypress tree pictured above. It’s in City Park’s Couturie Forest, a spot I’ve featured in this space before (most prominently in The Summer Tanager, and City Park Pictorial, Part 3). That cypress is near a picnic table, and next to a very showy live oak — it’s in sort of a natural contemplation / stopping point.

Sometime last year, I really took notice of this cypress. Specifically, the texture of its leaves, or rather, its needles. They are lacy, and soft, just like every other tree of its kind — no revelation to anyone who’s paid attention. I suppose I had never paid such close attention before.

I contemplate my writing quite a bit during my walks in the Couturie Forest, and it was the laciness of the greenery that struck me. As I was trying to conclude a series featuring a protagonist named Lacey, it was a natural connection to make. I dubbed the cypress the “Lacey Tree,” and committed to capture all its deciduous glory over the course of the coming seasons.

So here you have product of that effort. There are a thousand correlations I could make. . . did I despair that I’d never finish the story as I gazed on its spindly, denuded limbs in December? Did the suspense of awaiting new growth in March threaten to distract me from writing?

The answers are probably yes and yes, but there’s a big difference between my writing and the Lacey Tree. I don’t know how old it is, but the Internet tells me bald cypress trees can live up to 600 years. So there’s a good chance the Lacey Tree has been shedding and regrowing its foliage for some years before I ever showed up. As well as a stellar chance it’ll keep doing its thing long after I’m gone.

My window of opportunity to write the stories I want to write is significantly shorter. And my seasons and their effects are not as reliable. Requiring me to do something the Lacey Tree, despite all its magnificent, seasonal, verdure, could never do: tack with the wind.

Back to Work

Monday morning, June 24, 5:49 a.m.

Here’s something I might have mentioned in this space before: how I spent the first two months of 2019 racing to finish a draft of the third and final installment in the Lacey Becnel trilogy. I referenced this “big push” in this post: (Whirly) Word Milestones.

I received a comprehensive edit of the manuscript last month, and had a very productive call with the editor right before I left for Ireland. I had a loosely held intention of diving into the rewrites directly upon my return from the Emerald Isle. But the re-entry back into my day job, and my day-to-day life in general, made it very loose indeed.

So here I am, ensconced back home more than three weeks now, and I’ve finally started the work. Named a new file, and begun the process of combing through the line edits.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the day I started the work is the same day astronaut Anne McClain returned to Earth from the International Space Station.

A few notes about the picture at the top of this post, before I wrap this up. It’s not just another random sunrise photo I’m so fond of taking.

  • The picture is facing east. Just to the north, or the to left out of frame, is the eponymous overpass from The Incident Under the Overpass, the first book in the Lacey Becnel trilogy.
  • So if the northern tracks represent my first body of work, what do the southern tracks represent??
  • Up on the elevated track, the smell of creosote, or coal tar, was overwhelming. The railroad ties are treated with it. The aroma brought me back to my father’s camp on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain — a raised cabin resting on creosote-treated pilings.

The Internet tells me that creosote-treated wood has been banned in Europe since 2003, because creosote is a “probable” human carcinogen. I’ll try not to dwell on that, and instead focus on finishing up my third novel. 😮

 

 

The Count of Monte Cristo: 62%

Count of Monte Cristo
The unabridged, Robin Buss translation. Not sure this picture adequately conveys the massiveness of this volume. At 1,276 pages, this thing’s a door stop.

We’re almost halfway through 2019, and I have to confess, I’m pleased. Specifically, I’m pleased that I’ve “re-discovered” reading.

To be fair, I never really “lost” reading. But I definitely lost a regular reading habit. Many years ago, the advent of full-time employment delegated reading to those precious free hours tucked in and around the work week. Then when I decided to devote a fair portion of those free hours to writing fiction, reading for pleasure went out the window.

In my early days of writing, I was concerned about reading and unwittingly co-opting another author’s style or ideas. So overwhelming was the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing, I was afraid of confusing a process that was in a very primordial form.

I still might not know what I’m doing, but I’ve gained enough confidence to be able to look outside the confines of my own pages. Some part of me has always known that continued, deep, engaging, reading is absolutely necessary to any growth I hope to achieve as a writer. And I couldn’t be happier about finally arriving at that point in my writing journey.

So, a couple of quick observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, thus far:

  • While I’m still reading via Serial Reader, I discovered that there has been a recent translation, by Robin Buss, done in 1996 (I think). So the friendly folks at the Garden District Book Shop ordered the volume, and I picked it up from them. It’s been very helpful to refer to this huge paperback, when the public domain translation of a choice phrase has me scratching my head. I’m still an avowed fan of Serial Reader, though — because there’s no way I’m lugging around this rock with me. My phone is much lighter.
  • The plot reminds me of the soap operas I used to watch during the summer, when I was a kid. But the historical details make it a bit more educational.
  • I really want to see Tom Hiddleston play Edmond Dantes. All the capes, and the conniving behavior. . .it feels like a natural progression from Loki to the Count of Monte Cristo.

The thing about reading: it’s addictive. Moby Dick was like a gateway drug. Not content to just read one thing at a time, I just recently finished Benjamin Taylor’s The Book of Getting Even, a novel I began in earnest over a year ago. Loved it. “Literary” fiction that isn’t afraid to deliver a good story, and make you feel every last pang experienced by its brilliant protagonist, Gabriel Geismar.

And I’m more than halfway through Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. The observations about writing that keep coming up in this story are just devastating. In a good way. Like this bit, referring to D.H. Lawrence’s quote:

“But what about ‘Trust the tale not the teller,’ and how the critic’s job is to save the work from the writer? By ‘critic,’ you know, Lawrence did not mean self-appointed. I would love to see the consumer review that saved a book from its author.”

Okay, I haven’t been this long-winded in a while. That’s it ’til next week!

 

The Count of Monte Cristo: 22%

Frioul archipelago
Frioul archipelago, Marseille, France. Near the Château d’If, where Edmond Dantes was imprisoned. Photo by Paul Hermann on Unsplash.

I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo via my Serial Reader app on April 1. It’s split into 208 issues, compared to Moby-Dick‘s 79, so I will be at this for the duration of spring and well into summer. But thus far, I find it a much easier read than Melville’s classic. The narrative is straightforward and the language is simpler.

This might be a good time to address my motivation for reading these two particular classics. Or for choosing these two as the “first in line” as I attempt to rekindle my reading habit. My motivation feels, to me, pretty layered, and I don’t want to bore you with all that unpacking. So I guess the simplest way to state it is: there are themes in both these stories that seem to tap into a very rich vein in our collective unconscious, to borrow from Jung. And I’m seeking a deeper understanding of those themes and how those storytellers managed to mine them so successfully.

Or maybe even simpler: I want to improve my ability to write interesting stories with some meaning, and I realize that while some of the best teachers are long gone, their lessons live on through their work.

Some particular observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, so far:

  • Napoleon: It’s been interesting to read a story written when Napoleon’s imprint on the world was still quite fresh. Napoleon’s former reign, and his attempt to reclaim the throne, are pivotal parts to the early part of the story. Since I live in the one U.S. state with a legal system still largely based on the Napoleonic Code, learning some of this history seems like a wise thing to pursue.
  • The south of France: Marseille, France has been the focal point of the story. Dumas’s depictions of the areas around the coasts of France and Italy are very evocative, and have sparked a new longing to see that part of the world, Marseille in particular. I’ve flown into Nice multiple times, and have spent considerable time in Cannes (in a former work life), but I have never made it to Marseille.
  • V for Vendetta: Going back to my motivations for reading The Count of Monte Cristo, V for Vendetta is one of them. It’s one of my favorite movies, and Monte Cristo is a recurring reference in it. It felt like high time to see what those references are all about.
  • Speaking of serials: Wikipedia tells me The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in 18 parts, over a period of about 18 months.

I’m on track to beat that time by far. I’ve upgraded the Serial Reader app so that I can receive multiple issues in a day, if I choose. My goal is to finish Monte Cristo in under five months, instead of the nearly seven months it would take me at a “one-a-day” pace. At any rate, this is not the last you’ll be hearing from me, regarding Edmond Dantes!

While You See a Chance

April’s quote: “Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come.”

There’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, now: Steve Winwood’s song “While You See a Chance,” from the album Arc of a Diver, released in February 1981.

Wikipedia tells me it made it all the way to Number 7 on the “Billboard Hot 100” by April of that same year. Thirty-eight years ago.

I remember that song pushing all the right buttons for me. I was a pre-teen, my tastes and predilections beginning to form, starting to diverge from those of my six older siblings. While those tastes never developed me into a die-hard Steve Winwood fan, that song has always ranked pretty high among my all-time faves.

A few months ago, I got a yen to hear it, and looked it up on YouTube. It’s a truly bizarre video, featuring proto-Blue-Man-Group performers and really bad visual effects, including light flashes that feel seizure-inducing. If you’re curious, click here.

Spotify’s audio-only version is preferable. Not only because I don’t have to shield my eyes, but also because it’s apparently been re-mixed. There’s a weird dub spot that I remember from the radio version, that’s still on YouTube. At around 2:19, Steve Winwood’s vocals go up and end abruptly, at the end of the lyric “And don’t you wonder how you keep on moving? / One more day your way.” How “your way” comes out never sounded right to me. It’s fixed on Spotify.

And speaking of the lyrics, they’re still one of my favorite things about the song. These are perhaps my favorite verses:

“When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you

While you see a chance take it
Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you”

Looking back to the Spring of 1981, I couldn’t have fathomed the many ways the endless road would unwind me. But deep down, I’ve always known that it’s all on me to find a way to re-wind.

And nowhere do the words “it’s all on you” feel truer than when you’re trying to write a story. Solo, without collaborators. I’m pretty sure that’s why I got the yen to hear this song in the first place. It does a great job of reminding me of my youthful enthusiasm, and helping me tap into an energy I had before I started down this endless road. 🙂

Nine Years In

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

March 27 has significance to me. And not because it’s a nephew’s birthday (sorry, Matt.) Specifically, the date of March 27, 2010, is a date I note for very personal reasons.

It’s the day I became a writer.

But that’s an oversimplification. Big time. The process of “becoming” anything is more evolutionary than instantaneous. It’s more accurate to state that March 27, 2010, is “the first day I committed words to paper, with the intent of weaving those words into a long-form story.” Or, it’s “the day I began to write fiction.” But I think saying it’s the day I became a writer sounds more compelling.

I’ll set the stage. I was six months into my forties. I had run my third marathon about two months prior. It was a Saturday night, and I was in New Holland, Pennsylvania on a business trip. (I’ll save the details on that trip for some other post, that I may or may not ever write).

There was definitely a “what’s next?” question looming in my mind. And there had been amorphous story ideas floating around in there, too. But those were all laid atop a lifelong desire to write that I had managed to tamp down, or ignore, up to that point. I would tell myself, “I’m too busy trying to make a living,” or, “it’s not a practical use of my time.”

I was in need of a catalyst. And that quick, quiet, trip to New Holland provided it.

That weekend, I saw a lot of horse-drawn buggies like the one pictured at the top of this post. Add a covering, and a prominent caution triangle fixed at the rear, and you’ll get the idea. Perhaps it was an appropriate symbol for the speed of my nascent writing career. It would be three years before I’d share anything I’d written, and another three before I was ready to share with the wider world.

So, on this nine-year anniversary, do I have any regrets? Absolutely. There are plenty of things I would do differently, now that I have the benefit of hindsight. But things don’t work that way. And I have ZERO regrets about embarking down this path.

There’s a piece of writing advice I keep bookmarked on my phone. I go to it whenever I need encouragement, which is often. So I’ll conclude by sharing this excerpt — it’s an apt description of my beginnings:

Write a lot. Maybe at the outset you’ll be like a toddler—the terrible twos are partly about being frustrated because you’re smarter than your motor skills or your mouth, you want to color the picture, ask for the toy, and you’re bumbling, incoherent and no one gets it, but it’s not only time that gets the kid onward to more sophistication and skill, it’s effort and practice. Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words. — From “How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit”

Moby-Dick: 99%

Okay, well, really 100%. Though my final issue of Moby-Dick from Serial Reader won’t arrive until later this morning; as luck would have it, I managed to read to the end using an analog copy.

And luck, or chance, did seem to have something to do with it. I’ve been tidying up (no, I have not watched Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix. My current tidying initiative is the consequence of a need, long-neglected, and a Lenten resolution). So, anyway, I was clearing a shelf on a bookcase, and happened across the copy of Moby Dick pictured above.

The copyright is 1948, and this edition is a fifth printing, dated June 1953. My father’s name is inscribed on the title page. Given the timing, I have to think he acquired the book toward the end of his college days. And I acquired it roughly three years ago, when we were doing the final clearing of my parents’ house before selling it.

Talk about a long-neglected need. When I subscribed to Moby-Dick on Serial Reader, I wasn’t aware that this copy was sitting on a shelf in my house. I don’t regret reading Moby-Dick on my phone — the print copy is yellowing and would have been much the worse for wear, had I toted it everywhere with me and read eight pages a day for the last eighty days.

I just wish I had been a bit more cognizant of my belongings.

There’s so much I could write about Moby Dick as literature: how Melville spends a lot of time on whales, how he introduces compelling characters in the final third of the book (something I thought I wasn’t supposed to do as a writer), how he telegraphs the ending. But it’s getting late, and I want to wrap this up.

One of the benefits of reading on my phone: I can take screen captures of passages that speak to me. There are about sixteen screen captures from Moby-Dick sitting in my favorites right now. Many of the passages are pretty dark, and I’d hate to conclude my post that way. So instead I’ll end with a quote that strikes a nice balance:

“Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolesence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If.”

 

(Whirly) Word Milestones

How long does it take to get to one million on Whirly Word?

Whirly Word has been my game of choice for the past several years. Back in the day before smart phones, I was very fond of a game called “Typer Shark.” But it would seem you really need a full-sized qwerty keyboard, if you want to achieve any real advancement in Typer Shark. If there’s a Typer Shark version for smart phones, I don’t want to know about it.

I like Whirly Word because it’s a word game, and it’s not a time-suck. I can play for a few minutes, and then set it down to resume the next time the spirit moves me. Last summer, I had a dalliance with a game that shall remain nameless (but it involves bubbles and pandas). Talk about a time-suck. I had to give it up, cold-turkey, because I could no longer deal with the anguish and regret I felt over the hours spent saving baby pandas trapped in bubbles.

Whirly Word fits in nicely with writing, and holding down a full-time job, and, essentially, engaging in a full life. I think it took me over three years to reach the score featured above.

Which brings me to a point about milestones. I belong to several Facebook groups for fiction writers, and I see many posts about word milestones. Folks who are able to knock out 40,000 words over a long weekend, or folks who can’t quit until they’ve written 10,000 words in their day.

I’m not one of those folks.

I’ve been at this long enough to know that I write slowly. And also, that once it gets past 8pm on a weekday, I’m pretty worthless. If my day has kept me occupied in other ways, and I’m only sitting down to write in the evening hours, then that day is likely a wash.

There’s a personal correlation between word counts and Whirly Word, I promise. And here it is: in the past month, I knew I was getting close to the one million score on Whirly Word. But more importantly, I was also really close to finishing up a draft of a novel. I told myself I had to finish the draft before scoring seven digits.

Between Friday, February 22 and Thursday, February 28, I calculate I wrote roughly 10,000 words. Pretty sure that’s a record for me. I turned over the draft to editors on Friday, March 1. My score on Whirly Word surpassed one million on Monday, March 4.

So here’s the thing about writing that much. It felt good, but it was also exhausting. I can’t sustain that pace week in, and week out. It was the running equivalent of “finishing strong” and sprinting to the finish line.

Taking the long view, and bringing it back to Whirly Word, I figure I’ve published two novels, and completed a third, in the time it took me to score one million points.

What will have transpired by the time I reach two million? 🙂

Field Trip

I missed some stunning visuals on my way to Thibodaux, (because I was driving and couldn’t take pictures). So here’s a recent pic of the Little Free Library, just outside the Couturie Forest in New Orleans City Park.

Last Friday, I had a very nice diversion from my normal routine — I went to Thibodaux, a town about sixty miles southwest of New Orleans, to speak to a group of high school students about fiction writing. Here are a few observations about the experience:

  • I was invited to speak to two junior classes at the Catholic high school in Thibodaux. Since my interest in writing began my junior year at a Catholic high school here in New Orleans, I started my self-introduction there. I tried to make the presentation as participatory as possible, and a few of the students shared excerpts from what they’d written as part of their semester assignment.
  • When I say “outside my routine,” I mean it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a high school classroom, and I was pretty nervous. All in all, it was fun to share some of my adventures in writing, and to share what compels me to keep at it.
  • Invited to speak to English classes  — that must mean I’m a real writer, right?!?
  • Some pictures I wish I could have taken, of the sights between New Orleans and Thibodaux:
    • Crossing the Mississippi River through a thick fog, 155 feet above the surface of the water. Pretty scary, but it also felt like I was in a flying car.
    • The campus of Nicholls State University. The fog was so thick on my drive in, I didn’t see that I passed it as I made the turn to the high school. The sun was shining by the time I left, and I realized my oversight then.
    • Bayou Lafourche. The town of Thibodaux is situated along its banks.

That’s it for now!