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Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Southern Yankee

Red Skelton made a movie in 1948 called A Southern Yankee, and it was based very loosely on Buster Keaton’s wonderful movie, The General. Keaton actually worked on A Southern Yankee as a gag man and contributed its most famous scene: Skelton traverses a battlefield during the Civil War and soldiers on both sides cease firing to let him pass. It turns out that he is dressed in blue on one side and the flag he is carrying shows the Stars and Stripes, while, on the other side, his uniform is grey and the flag shows the Stars and Bars. And this is how I feel: I am a southern Yankee.

I was born in Rhode Island in southern New England and raised partly there and partly in San Francisco and did not make my way south until I was in my early 20s in the spring of 1983. My father had died six months earlier, and a friend, an Atlantan whose family had moved north a few years before, had relocated to DeKalb County and was determined to lure me southward. With a burst of what I would come to know as typical Atlanta boosterism, she convinced me that the city was on the verge of blossoming into a theatrical Mecca, an ultra-humid Broadway that was just waiting for up-and-comers like me. And so I moved south, never ventured closer to the theatrical community than the fringes, and learned to regard the billboard on Peachtree that read, “Move Over Big Apple, Here Comes the Big Peach,” with a little more than a grain of salt.

In the intervening 24 years, I have lived north of the Mason-Dixon line for a mere three. Of the remaining 21, I have spent 17 of them in Atlanta and the remaining four in Northern Virginia in the suburbs of Washington, DC. And if you don’t think Washington is a southern town, think again. An attorney I used to know once told me that if you wanted to know what a Reconstruction government was like, you should try registering a car in the District.

Over time, I have learned that Southerners tend to distrust Northern candor, which strikes them as course and brusque. Northerners distrust Southern manners, interpreting them as shallow, insincere, and duplicitous. The truth, as always, falls somewhere in the great gaping middle, and the perceptions come more from a kind of culture shock than from a true assessment of what the denizens of either region are like. There are, and always have been, Northerners with manners and blunt Southerners.

Racism, America’s original sin, permeates both areas that provided contestants for the Civil War. In the North, however, it tends to be overt and angry and an issue that presents itself in occasional violent outbursts. In the South, on the other hand, it exists more often as an understanding and as an ongoing facet of the community.

I remember once, after a black coworker had flirted with me a bit, having my white supervisor come up to me to say, “That’s fun and all, but you understand that separate is separate.” I was nonplussed since there was nothing in my northern and western upbringing to prepare me for that concept. And I knew that had I confronted my boss with a charge of racism that she would have been flabbergasted. She no more thought of her attitude as racist than I thought of mine as revolutionary.
And this is the part of the Southern experience that keeps me at a distance, the part that knew Jim Crow, the part that can look at another human as something not quite human, not quite equal. Northern bigotry is based in fear; Southern bigotry is based in a perverse kind of faith and tradition. And there lies the difference.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Two Things

Thursday's weekly essay is below. Don't miss it! Unless you have to, of course. You know. I understand.

I know I said once-a-week posts, but this is special. And short. And oh so informative.

First, since I am generally only posting once each week, it might behoove anyone who wishes to keep up with it to subscribe to the RSS feed of the blog, a link for which is located at the bottom of the main page. It's really simple, and that way you'll always know when I post something new.

Second, I have started posting my thoughts on the Virginia Tech massacre and the phenomenon of rampage killings on another of my blogs, Shooting Off My Fat Trap. I'm trying to take a longer view of these tragic events than I've seen elsewhere. I'll just say here that there are no easy answers.

That blog is also available for RSS feed.

Friday, April 13, 2007

M F'in A in Creative Writing

Nathan Bransford is a literary agent who has a blog, and last week he wrote a post that asked his readers for their thoughts on the usefulness of academic programs in creative writing. As part of his post, he said,

[C]reative writing programs tend to stress short fiction writing even as magazines such as The Atlantic are dropping short stories, and short fiction collections have a reputation as being difficult to sell.

I thought this was a very interesting insight and made a connection that I had not made before: Academic writing programs killed the short story.

There was a time when the short story was America's favorite fictive form. All the major magazines, as well as the minor ones and many newspapers, published short stories. Major authors, well-known as novelists, practiced the art, and some were known for almost nothing else. Having read stories by Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others, I can understand why. These stories cut through me and expose me to life as it is lived.

I don't think I've made my way all the way through a story that's been written in the last 20 years. At a minimum.

Short stories no longer speak to us or speak to our lives. They tend to be self-consciously solemn or ironic and generally just plain boring. They read like term papers written to impress the professor by the clever students, the ones who linger at the podium after the lecture to stroke the professor's pretensions and avoid his wrath.

This is the problem that comes when we stop looking at writing as a calling and turn it instead into a profession.

There are always going to be people who write because they have a knack for it, and it beats working for a living. It used to be that these people became journalists and the authors of various types of hackwork. But they never became leading novelists or poets or playwrights.

This is not to say that all the leading novelists in days gone by were geniuses; the great majority were nothing of the sort. They were, however, generally people who had been called to do their pitiful best in the telling of tales. In fact, the strengths that they did display--sentimentality, a gift for improbable action--were not the strengths of the technicians. The poor saps had no idea how terrible they were and went to their graves thinking of themselves as great artists. And if you don't believe me, I've got two words and a hyphen for you: Bulwer-Lytton.

The thing about the technicians is that they are capable with words. They can arrange them and stack them and even pull off the occasional piece of prestidigitation. They just have no talent for telling us about life as it is lived. They have ideas instead of empathy and theories in place of feelings. They are not artists, but workers, drones who collect enough nectar for a dew drop of honey, but no more.

Turning the vocation of writer into the profession of author makes it easy for the second-raters to rise to the top. The secrets of rising in any profession are always the same. It means playing the game, shaking the right hands, and riding the prevailing wind in whatever direction it takes you.

People who have been called are good at none of these things typically. They are always pursuing their own vision and speaking in their own voices, and nothing scares a technician quicker than an original voice. The profession takes on the trappings of the fraternal organization and the acquisition of an MFA can be understood as the equivalent of an initiation and a secret handshake.

The problem becomes that even the making of prose becomes part of the code. When this happens, the art of literature is doomed.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Blogging Off the Top of My Head

My first experience with blogging came when I encountered Phil Austin's Blog of the Unknown late in 2002, I think, certainly no later than early 2003. Blogging was still a new thing then, and Phil had taken a small squad of Firesign Theatre addicts down a rabbit hole called "Experiments in Writing." It was in many ways a fortunate accident that brought me to The Blog of the Unknown, and I learned a great deal from the writings of my cohorts there. It was, however, like The Journey to the East, doomed from the start. We Wayfarers eventually found our gorge of Morbio Inferiore, and The Blog was no longer what it was. It is doubtful that it ever will be again.

What I did not know at the time was that The Blog of the Unknown was an atypical blog. Most blogs were either political or confessional, with the most outrageous or sauciest ones being the most popular. When I stumbled into creating this blog in September of 2004, I had no idea that blogging was something of a fad and was a fad that had just about peeked. I saw it as a way of promoting my then budding radio show; it was a major component of my marketing plan, a plan that crashed on takeoff, or perhaps just as it was leaving the gate. But that's life.

In these last four or so years in the blogosphere, I have given thought on occasion to the phenomenon itself, to the acts of blogging and commenting, to how blogs work and how we approach them and how they affect us. I have thought about what the meaning might be in a literary activity that comprises mostly blather.

Has there ever been another means of communication that was open to so many and said so little? It is a medium that rewards brevity and courseness. Long posts (such as this one) written with subtlety and wit (it could happen) are anathema to the great mass of blog readers. They are in search of people with similar prejudices or similar problems or a peek into a fantasy version of someone else's sex life. The best posts do not make you scroll down or think a new thought or open yourself to another in compassion. Those things take time, and blogging tends to reward speed rather than depth.

As posts pile up in reverse chronological order, the New takes precedence over the Past, which becomes an artifact safely stored in an archive. Blogging has its roots in journalism, especially in news writing. The latest post is a slender newspaper that gets its day at the top of the pile before being banished to the shadows below.

Does blogging have a great effect on society? I doubt it. It's more of a symptom than a disease, more a reflection of society than its shaper. We live in a society that is devoted to shallowness and emotion and that mistakes chasing the New for living in the Now. Why should we expect any more than that from a blog?

Blogs are now, of course, on the wane. What happened to the Hoola-Hoop can happen here, although I doubt that blogs are in any danger of disappearing altogether, at least not soon. As newspapers move increasingly away from print, official blogs will replace traditional columns and the professional blogger will replace the amateur. And never again will there be a Blog of the Unknown.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Well, I tried using the blog for my morning pages, but that didn't quite work out. The problem is that morning pages and journals are things meant to be done in private--you need a place where you can fail bravely and write poorly. Someone asked George Gershwin how many songs he wrote in a week, and he replied, "I write 14 songs a day. That way, I can get the bad ones out of my system."

That's the theory behind a journal.

And so, I have purchased an old fashioned notebook that I'm going to try to fill with an old fashioned pen. (It really is old fashioned; I use a cartridge-type fountain pen I've had for I-don't-know-how-long.) It's the only way to go.

That leaves me with a bit of a blog problem. What to do with this blog? Today, I decided on a course of action.

A couple of things occurred to me. First, I realized that the problem with doing morning pages on a blog is the public nature of it. The little button on the screen I write these posts on says, "PUBLISH," and that is correct. Blogging is a form of self-publishing.

Second, I realized that I don't want to publish inferior product. Any writing of mine that ends up in public needs to be polished and the best that I can make it. My best posts here have parts that make me outright wince when I reread them and this comes from the posts having been written straight off the top of my head. This is not my best work nor at all what I am capable of.

After tossing these ideas around the old brainbox for a while, I came to the conclusion that the best use to which I could put this blog is turn it into a modern version of the periodicals that were popular in the 18th Century. I mean, what was good enough for Addison and Steele and Samuel Johnson ought to be good enough for the likes of me.

In the interest of full disclosure, the appearance of this idea was influenced by a flyer for a talk given at the university I currently work for by the person who blogs under the pseudonym BitchPhD. In fact, I'm going to go ahead and give her a link on the sidebar in recompense. I'm just that kind of guy.

Anyway. The end product of all this mulling is that, from now on, I plan to publish this blog once each week. Every Thursday I will publish an essay on whatever topic I deem worth writing about. This coming Thursday, for example, I hope to write something about my experiences as a blogger.

Topical stuff--the kind of writing that comes when I just have to blow off some steam because we're ruled by a gaggle of morons--will still get posted to Shooting Off My Fat Trap. Updates on the progress in the marketing and revision of my novel will appear at Michael Drayton, Detective Guy.

And all of my journaling will happen in private and on paper. See you on Thursday.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Dream Is Over--Or Is It?

Michael Drayton, Detective Guy did not make the cut in the contest over at Twenty semi-finalists were chosen yesterday, leaving Drayton, I'm sure, at position 21 or maybe 27. So close and yet so far. I got the impression that all the semi-finalists are genre-friendly potboilers, something which Drayton certainly is not, and since the imprint that all this is directed toward, Touchstone/Fireside, specializes in genre-friendly potboilers, that is all well and good.

Be of good cheer, though. All is not lost. I have already sent a query to an agent. At the very least, this contest gave me a solid deadline to shoot for, and I made it with a reasonable draft left behind for my troubles. The current version isn't perfect--the last half needs a thorough rewrite--but the story is in place with enough good writing along the way to show that I can write somewhat. And whether this first agent bites or whether it takes 100 queries to find somebody, I'll keep on. It's really that good.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

This and That

I hadn't written anything today, and there is the idea that there is value in just putting something down every day as an exercise, and I don't know that I have anything specific to say, so I thought I'd just ramble on here for a while with small bits of things as they occur to me.

William Faulkner once wrote a sentence that was 1300 words long. I just came across that yesterday.

As I've looked back on the last several chapters of Drayton, I've seen that value of rewriting from the top, starting fresh and reconsidering every word. That's what we used to do in the old days of typewriters, and it was a good system for a writer. I'd really like to go back to using my manual typewriters, but it's not convenient right now. But once I'm a world famous novelist, I'll be able to do whatever the hell I want. You'll see!

There's been another shooting this afternoon, this one in the Omni Hotel in the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. The discussion about guns in this country tends to revolve around laws and restrictions, but rarely around the meaning of guns to our society. Since there is far more gun-related violence in the United States than in any other developed nation, there has to be a difference in the way that guns are perceived. And while gun control proponents will argue that differences in laws make for different levels of violence, I'm not sure that that is the whole story.

It seems to me that, culturally, Americans believe two things about guns: 1)Possessing a weapon means having power and 2)using a weapon is a good way of solving problems.

It has become a truism that our basic American myth is not that of the founding or the Revolution, but the story of the expansion into the West. Our shared cultural myth depends on a couple of notions if it is to function in any way. The first is that anyone who goes unarmed is either a fool or a coward and often both. The second is that The Bad Guys need to be killed, preferably with a pistol, and preferably in a showdown. Compromise and discussion are cowardly and useless. Violence is the only means to right wrongs.

The problem with this worldview is that it is wrong. Rationality, compromise, discussion, empathy, and compassion solve problems. Time-and-time again, they solve problems while creating fewer new problems than violence does. Being reasonable, of course, doesn't come with the childish rush of excitement that holding a firearm does, and it often calls for far greater courage than can be found at the butt-end of a gun, but it has its compensations.

Anyway, that's just a longwinded way of saying that I think that if we want to see the violence and senseless deaths diminished, we should start by examining our collective feelings towards guns even before we should change the laws.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Road to Crap

I've just finished reading a story in today's New York Times about a new blending of technology with theater that, in the words of George Spigott in the original Bedazzled, "fills me with inertia."

A couple of dingbats, working independently of one another, have come up with a way to have a projected image of an actor appear onstage with the actor himself. Now, that alone is an old conjurer's trick and no great shakes. It's the addition of software that can control the video image so that the image can react to the live person. Sounds neat, doesn't it? Here's why it isn't:

This kind of invasion of theater by technology never results in a better product. It merely results in a slicker visual experience that is usually used to hide the paucity of artistic value in the project as a whole. And then the next project is chosen because it will support the gimmickry and the whole of theater is given over to empty spectacle and a sackful of magic tricks.

How do I know this? I this because that is how it has always been. In my own lifetime, I've seen the entire musical form be debased by the amazing sets and pyrotechnics of Les Miserables and the collected works of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Don't believe me? Ask anyone who has gone to see Les Miz or Phantom what they liked about it best, and I'll give you a dollar if the first thing that comes out of their mouths isn't a tribute to the sets.

The problem that modern American theater has is that serious theater is pretentious and everything else is empty show. They try to compete with movies by being just as lame and laden with special effects, and both lose audience to the medium that's least likely to indulge in special effects: TV.