Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas Shakes


The Christmas season is over now, which for me means an end to two months of anxiety. In my case this seasonal anxiety isn't born out of hurrying from store to store to buy Christmas presents, spending long hours trying to address Christmas cards to relatives I haven't seen in years while attempting to make them personal, or from the stress of realizing that all the magic of the holidays I once experienced as a child has long since dulled. While these all these add to my agitation in small ways, the main cause of my holiday madness is due to the fact away from my job as a professor I wait tables on the side, and the holiday season is our busiest time of year.

For two months I don't know what day of the week it is. I am only aware of what time I have to work. On an average day I might attend to the needs of anywhere from one to five hundred people. Seconds are spent juggling the needs and concerns of people who measure the time they spent waiting for their salads with nervous forkplay and looks of annoyance. It weighs on you. You become a smiling pinball. Your nerves go first.

I noticed that after a month into the season I began to experience a phenomena I had only seen in long-term servers, grandmothers and middle-aged men who still come in everyday to carry plates to secretaries and warm bottles in the coffee cups. My hands began to shake. It started as a tremor, but as the weeks passed I suffered the same fate as the long-timers. At the end of the night I would wait for a manager to appear with my check-out slip and cash shaking in my hand. My nerves had gone.

The holiday season at a restaurant has the effect on the staff that combat or other stressful situations might in that it brings out the worst in you. Every personality flaw is amplified. If someone is a racist they stop hiding it. Sweet single mothers become spiteful and suspicious. Closet alcoholics rush out to down margaritas between the lunch and dinner shift. For my part, I spent the last two weeks punching walls and staring at knives.

But its over now. My hands are steady as a tattoo artist. Wrapping paper lines the dumpsters, and the crowds have thinned. My Christmas shakes have passed, and now at my part-time job we are much kinder to our fellow man.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Online Dreaming and Dosing


A recent study I don't remember well enough to cite showed that college-age students spend more time on average each day surfing the internet than they do watching television. I'm not surprised as my daily routine leads me to a desktop far more often then it leads me to a remote control. Since I had a rare day off today I spent most of my time imagining myself doing incredibly benefitial things which I left for the most part half-done or postponed. While I did get a few pages written, a baby fed and adored, and some random shoes stowed away, most of my time was spent online dreaming all the things I would do later. Since that time has yet to come, here are some of the things I found on the net today.

First, I searched to see if the Hells Angels have a homepage. Hunter S. Thompson's book on the outlaw motorcycle gang was one of my favorite non-fiction books in college and AE insists on running documentaries on the Ching-A-Lings and Mongols every day, so the idea of tire iron wielding thugs surfaced from the depths of my unconscious mind at the keyboard for some reason.

Of course they did. Not only do the Hells Angels have a homepage, they have many. On some the first question asked of visitors is whether they have high or low bandwidth. Once inside the main homepage visitors can navigate to chapters all over the world, each with their own homepage and estore.

I have to admit this was a discouraging revelation. I have long held the suspicion that every Harley Davidson that passes me on the street is driven by a dentist or architect, but the fact that the most notorious motorcycle gang in our country's history is internet savvy and populated by part-time iMac operators broke my heart.

Secondly, I found a great clip of members of How's Your News (a news group staffed by the handicapped) performing with the The Polyphonic Spree. To check it out click here.

Lastly, I spent almost an hour answering quizzes at Mental Floss' homepage. Mental Floss is a trivia magazine I subscribe to which makes me feel smart and informed in spite of myself. I learned interesting facts about ladybugs and lighthouses and answered quizzes covering important topics such as "ham" and "Are there product placements in novels?" If you are a dedicated procrastinator check out there homepage for trivia...whenever you get around to it.

The alluring thing about the internet is that it allows you to imagine how wonderful it would be to have things. When people browse they are stimulated by the images of all the great products they could have if they clicked here and entered in a credit card number. It's sedentary shopping; a deadly combination of two American loves: wanting and doing nothing.

Once again, internet browsing trumped television for me. Writers are on strike. Shows are in reruns. Commercials can't be clicked away. Now it's past midnight and my blogging is almost finished. Time to get to work and do all the productive things I've pictured myself doing all day long.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Inside the Author's Anthology



The Jesse Stuart Foundation was nice enough to publish my short story "Rabbit Blood" in their anthology "New Growth: Recent Kentucky Writing." When I received my contributor copies this week I was surprised to see that they also included discussion questions about my story for the readers. In the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut writing a term paper about Kurt Vonnegut in the 80s classic "Back To School" I thought it might be fun to go ahead and answer these questions myself. I am a little hesitant however, as in the film Vonnegut's paper received an F and the professor commented "You obviously know nothing about Kurt Vonnegut." Regardless, here it goes. The questions below are the actual questions which appear in the anthology.

Question 1: An initiation story is one that involves a character (usually a young one) in a potentially maturing situation. Sometimes a character gains an insight; sometimes, not. Do you think the young narrator of Rabbit Blood learns anything about life by the story's end? Does he mature in any way?

Answer: In my opinion by the end of the story the young protagonist has learned that his feelings for his older love interest were childish and could never be shared due to a combination life issues such as the gap in their age, their current stations in life, and other factors. This is much the same resolution we find in other initiation stories such as most notably James Joyce's "Araby," although to compare this story to "Araby" would be an injustice.

Question 2: Do you think your understanding of this story would be different if it were in third person rather than by the character himself? How?

Answer: Writing in the third person has advantages and disadvantages. The advantages come in the ability to broadly explore the world of the story and the lives of secondary characters. The disadvantages include limiting the intimacy between the reader and the protagonist in addition to lessening insight into the lead character's worldview. Had this story been written in third person readers would have been able to learn more about the world in which the story takes place as well as the lives of the secondary characters, but this choice would drastically change the story's direction and limit the ownership of the story's main character.

Question 3: Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows more than a character or narrator. What effect does your knowing things about the situation (e.g., Lucky's "medicine" is some type of illegal drug) that escape the narrator have on your interpretation of the story?

Answer: As a reader I know much more about the story than the young narrator and it is this knowledge that allows me sympathize with his struggle. Had he understood more about the world around him it would have raised questions about what age he truly was. As an author, I attempt to portray characters as truly as I can. One of the mistakes authors make when writing about young characters is to construct them as unusually smart and perceptive for their age.

Question 4: Hampton claims that his story "is composed of several scraps of memory left from my childhood." Do you think creating fiction by weaving memories from different events and real-life characters would be difficult? Why?

Answer: I said that? Well it's true. Most writers I know are hopelessly sentimental in one aspect or another. Stories are largely created from things overhead, events half-remembered, and recollections of people long gone that have been softened by the passage of time. I don't think it's difficult at all as it's the only way I know how to write. It would be much harder for me to write a story about Texas for example if I hadn't driven across it once in the past. In my opinion it would be much harder to create a story out of thin air and people it with characters whose attributes and habits I hadn't lifted from life. One of the most important skills you can gain as a writer is the ability to listen, watch, and steal liberally at every turn.

Again these are just the answers I have as the author of the story. Yours as a reader might be different, and neither of us are definitively correct in the end. If you read my story in the anthology and enjoy it, that's enough.

Monday, November 12, 2007

My Reading at The Rud


This past Friday I gave my first reading in a year at The Rudyard Kipling in Louisville. It was a wonderful night.

The venue itself was the perfect setting for intimate art events. The Rudyard Kipling is a small nondescript restaurant and bar in historic downtown Louisville. The performance space upstairs consisted of a large wooden room with an elevated stage surrounded by tables.

Danny Flannigan opened the show, and was wonderful. He was a powerful singer songwriter who shared songs about hope, life, growing older and about his days working on construction sites. Downstairs after his set he confessed that the Rud was one of his top three gigs of the year.

I was invited as part of the InKy Reading Series, and that Friday was dedicated to fiction writers. Stephen George of Louisville's The Leo read first, I read second, and the last author of the night was Brian Leung closed the night.

Stephen shared a short story, and Brian read two prose poems in addition to the short first chapter of his novel "Lost Men." I read three short stories , two of which had originally appeared in The Southeast Review.

Though there weren't as many people there as I had hoped it was a wonderful time and I would like to thank all of you who came to see me.

Monday, November 05, 2007

New Growth: Recent Kentucky Writing

The Jesse Stuart recently published the anthology New Growth: Recent Kentucky Writing which features my short story "Rabbit Blood." If you are interested in picking up a copy follow this link.

Reading at the Rudyard Kipling

This Friday (November 9th) I will be reading at The Rudyard Kipling in Louisville as part of the InKY Reading Series along with authors Stephen George and Brian Leung. If you are in the ville that day stop by and buy me a drink. I'll need it.

One Hour Before Thirty

In less than an hour, and possibly by the time I finish this post, I will be thirty years old. It's a grim reality and one I am still attempting to reconcile.

Thirty is said to be the old age of youth. In the Japanese culture thirty is considered the age in which one truly becomes a man. As I draw nearer by the minute to this milestone I feel less adult than ever before.

The evidence of my age is mounting however. I've done things I never dreamed of doing when I was younger. I have been married now for seven years. I have a child. I also work as a professor and it seems ever quarter I am confused by how young my students seem to be. This should all stand as evidence that I am no longer young, but every time proof of my progression toward the grave presents itself I counter in my mind with proof to the contrary.

For example I spend each night of my life watching cartoons populated by sophisticated talking dogs and megalomaniacal milkshakes. I have a myspace page as well as one on facebook. My tastes are helplessly teenage; ragged jeans, Goodwill shirts, albums by bands no one has heard of.

But since my birthday is hurtling through time toward me I have made plans. Tomorrow I will celebrate the death of my twenties with my own personal wake. I will drink the same bourbon I drank in college, one with a quality so low referring to it as "cheap" would be an exercise in looking on the bright side. I will watch reruns of The Ben Stiller Show (when I could stomach Ben Stiller), Mr. Show (one of the best and strangest sketch shows ever), Kids in the Hall (ditto), and Saturday Night Live from the early nineties (a cast which for my money surpasses the original 1975 cast). I will listen to Soul Asylum (Grave Dancers Union), Nirvana (Bleach), Pearl Jam (Ten), and Pontius Copilot (my favorite evaporating band from the past). I will wear a concert shirt from the bottom of my closet, and read from On The Road.

I will pretend to be young. The next day, I will learn how to be an adult.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Love Letters to a Fourteen Year Old


I've been a little down for the last week or so. Somewhere out there in the meandering channels of United States Postal Service, or in the mail rooms of dozens of literary journal, are my nicely typed submissions which have gone unanswered for six months or longer. If you write I am sure you can sympathize. Envelopes in the hands of strangers. Time drags on. You hope for the best.

To cheer myself up tonight I went down to the basement office I share with spiders, and pulled an old shoe box off a shelf crammed with boxed-up nativity figurines and old stereos. It's a box I've kept stowed away since I was in high school. I had the no-response blues, so I thought I would go slumming through memory lane, and remember a time when every letter I wrote received a heartfelt response. The shoe box holds the remnants of all my juvenile romances.

I was a letter writer up until the late nineties when I got my first hotmail address. I have love letters from girls I met at the beach on summer vacations, notes from girls I met at track meets, and Valentine Day cards from girls I can't place at all after so many years. Email ended this. With a check and a click
I erased every significant relationship I had after the age of eighteen. When I bring out the box, I am reminded of the tragedy of convenience.

If I had had email when I was younger I wouldn't have been able to notice the following:

1.
When young and writing love letters, it is important to use a lot of exclamation points.
2.
If you have a step-daughter it is important to develop a strong bond with her. Otherwise she will refer to you only by your first name, and write long diatribes against you to boys she hardly knows.
3.
The girls who wrote to me spent almost have their time writing about their sisters, brothers, cousins and friends. This make sense since for the most part we hardly knew one another although we were in the grips of storied and tragic love affairs.

4.
Nearly every letter ends with a plea to write back soon. The absence of email led to anticipation which made the whole affair more exciting. I imagine the girls who wrote me walked to the mailbox everyday, as I did, full of hope that there would be a letter waiting for them. This was good training for a writer.

5.
We talked about everyday things: music, movies, TV shows. When I read the letters I feel old.

6.
It is possible to express your feelings with homemade gifts. The box contained among other things a romantic cassette tape with songs by Bryan Adams and REO Speedwagon taped from the radio, and a lock of hair taped to a birthday card.

In the end, I'm glad that email didn't exist when I was younger. Thanks to my shoe box I spent the night remembering a girl with amazing handwriting who dated me and three other boys at the same time, a girl whose dad had threatened to send her to Charter Ridge (a mental hospital) if she got out of hand, and a girl who was thrilled that she just made third chair in band. I was also able to read letters from people I promised to love forever who I can't place now but whose sentiments still make me feel cared for.

Save your old love letters. Throw away your rejections. Wait for the mail, and keep faith that someone you haven't spoken to in years is cloistered in a basement remembering you fondly.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Motels Part I


1.

The Kozy Motel in Manchester, KY is a sagging platform of concrete and plaster that sits atop of a NAPA store my uncle Shorty has owned as long as I've lived. It was once a nice, clean, no-frills motel. It had been the only place to stay in town when my uncle owned it too.

When I was young my uncle drove my cousin and I to Lexington to see the WWF. It was the mid-eighties, and pro wrestling was at its height with heroes like Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant beating each other senseless on national television three times a week. In the back of the car my cousin and I talked about our heroes. I had a Jake the Snake Roberts poster that ran the length of my door, and my cousin had a foam replica of the championship belt which I envied greatly.

"Randy 'Mach Man' Savage, is going to be there with Elizabeth" my cousin said. "He hates Hulk because they used to be friends."

"He ain't a Macho Man," my uncle Shorty said. "He used to stay at the Kozy with his brother Lanny when they wrestled Smokey Mountain. I threw them out for stealing towels."

We loved the show that night because we had a first-hand account that the heel Macho Man was a real villian-- a towel thief.

2.

At the Baptist college I first attended, there were rules for everything. There were rules against holding hands in public or kissing on the lips. There were rules against wearing the wrong t-shirt, against unnaturally colored hair or pierced noses. There were rules to keep students from running.

Students were given two overnight passes a semester which had to be signed by their parents and approved by the college. If a student left for the night without an overnight pass they could be expelled. The college had learned long ago it was easier to expel troublemakers (free thinkers, pregnant girls) than to reform them. It was a work/study college, so it didn't hurt their bottom line to send half a dozen home each semester. It sent the right message to those that stayed.

The night before finals I sat in a Denny's with a girl I had known for a week. We smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. I had met her in art class where she only drew dead trees and nursery rhyme characters. Neither of us had an overnight pass, and each time a police man came to the pick-up window we sank into our seats.

We spent the night in a motel which had been built on top of a former stripmine. The polyester comforter was stained with motor oil. Ladybugs explored the blinds. We made love as if there was no hope left for us tomorrow.

3.

She had taken off her pants in the car as we crossed the desert because I asked her too. The car had no air-conditioner, and the heat had been growing since we passed an amusement park on the other side of Los Angeles. I had never driven a stick before so we depended on long runs. If I stopped at a light we were lost. Roadside flea markets bled into Barstow, and afterwards we vanished into the Mojave at seventy miles an hour.

Her feet dangled out the window, and sunlight bounced off half-painted toes. By the end of the day we had left the desert behind us, and found ourselves over seven thousand feet above sea level in Flagstaff, Arizona. I promised to get her off the road soon, and she asked if I wanted to go out later get a tattoo.

The lobby of the motel was decorated with statuettes of Hindu deities. Above the front desk curling blue arms spread out like a crab next to black bodied goddesses heavy with jewels. We checked in under fake names and paid in cash.

That night as she slept I sat on the floor in my underwear and watched a documentary about The Mississippi River. Hernado De Soto first laid eyes on it in 1541, when he was forty-four years old. I counted the days until I would see it for the first time. I was young. I too was an explorer.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virgina Tech And After


After I taught my last class today I saw CNN reporting that 7-8 students had been shot at Virginia Tech. When I got home forty-five minutes later the number was 22. By five o'clock the toll was 33 including the shooter, if there was in fact only one. Now after ten o'clock at night there still aren't any answers and there won't be for months.

At this hour the only things I'm sure of in the coming days are the following:

Experts will sit at roundtables with coffee mugs in front of them and blame scary musicians and violent video games, clips from Hollywood blockbusters with more explosions then dialogue will scroll before commercial breaks, and weeks later the same talking heads will begin to blame themselves for sensationalizing the tragedy.

While this is going on politicians and activists will debate gun control laws. One side will argue that firearms make our citizens unsafe and that there is no legitimate need for semi-automatic pistols in the realm of hunting or sport if they pose a danger to our children. The other side will say that only law-abiding citizens obey laws and that if more of the students had been armed the number shot would have been lower as someone could have shot the shooter. They might add that no one holds up a gunstore before the commercial break.

During all the talk celebrities and public official will weigh in on each side with one organizing benefit concerts and television specials, and the other trying to pass legislation to prevent this ever happening again.

As the answers come slowly over the months, each less satisfying than the next, people will grieve the fact that they missed important clues and some will apologize for not recognizing the potential for this to occur sooner. Lawsuits will come on the heels of these confessions while black armbands are sewn onto football uniforms and memorials are dedicated.

College campuses will begin to look more like high schools years from now, with metal detectors and armed guards. Concrete barriers will stop cars from parking too close to dormitories and professors will be required to report writing which might hint at potentially dangerous students.

The time of an open college campus in the heart of a community, one in which you can now wonder about freely watching squirrels or passing afternoons in the library, will become as foreign an idea as the time in which you could smoke cigarettes in high school.

In the end all that can be done will be done. The answers gained will continue not satisfy, and we will continue to live in a world that is often cruel, unpredictable and tragic on occasion because in the end there are no answers for these events. There is no prescription from which these terrible days spring. The best we can do is comfort one another, try and be a little smarter, and hope that we don't build walls too high to remember what it was like before they existed.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Breakdown Blues

First the confession. At this point I have not written a completely new short story for over four. I am embarrassed as I write this because being a writer is more than saying you are a writer. Being a writer is not the same thing as being a water skier where in the winter months no one has the expectations that you are out chipping ice away from the lakes so that you can ski. To be a writer requires an amount of constant unrewarded doggedness to do the title any justice, since after all, a writer is nothing if not someone who writes.

I have never been of the mind that being a writer is anymore important than being say a plumber or someone who seals driveways. After all, in the final analysis it might be less practical an endeavor than either as no one ever looks at their home in disgust and says, "Get the Yellowpages. We're going to need a writer." But since the term (the word title seems unfit for my present level of accomplishment and productivity) is one that I use to define myself, I do feel a certain sadness that I have done little as of late to earn it.

My descent into sloth has been a gradual one. When I graduated from my M.F.A. program a little over a year ago I had the makings of both a novel and a short story cycle. I spent the year after the program re-editing my novel and submitting it to publishers and agents. At this point it has been read and passed upon by two publishers, both of which had good cause. While I'm proud of the novel thus far, it is at best seventy-percent of the way finished. It's written in first person, which doesn't hold up well over two-hundred and fifty pages and also serves to limit the novel as I can only tell what the protagonist knows. With this in mind I began to re-edit the book, and though I was pleased with the start of the new draft it felt as if I have lived too long with the misfits I had created so I decided to take a break.

On this break I submitted new versions of short stories to journals, and re-edited the work I have into a short story cycle which I submitted to publishers. This was over four months ago and while I have been collecting scraps for new work, I haven't been able to practice the most important writing exercise of all--keeping my ass in the chair.

This breakdown is not an uncommon one. It has happened to most writing students I have met. They say when their time in the program ends all the late hours they poured into trying to please their professors and peers are eaten away by the concerns of making a living, raising a family, and the other more practical dilemmas of the world. The creative vein slowly scabs and flakes away if left unscratched.

It would be unfair to say that my disinterest in writing, or maybe it would be more appropriate to say my putting off writing, is due to the concerns of real life as these only play a part in my procrastination. I am not the most practical person after all. My inactivity is also due to my lack of success if I am to be honest with the universe and candid. Japanese Shinto priests have a term for work for which their is no immediate or practical reward (they call it spirit training) and lately my spirit is weak. I do recognize though that without the hours spent without reward or encouragement I will never be able to be successful in my work.

I also realize their have been others before my who have had it much worse than I do now. Flannery O'Connor who is failing health most of the time she forced herself to write three hours a day. The poet Li-Young Lee worked in a factory at night and wrote his poems alone in between shipments. The desire of the writer, the spirit, has to be strong or else nothing will ever come of their work.

The reason I write this confession, the reason I choose to set here in my basement and confess the fact that I haven't even tried of late, is to in a small way get moving again. I don't want to be at some Christmas party years from now talking about how I used to write. I am at this moment practicing the most important writing exercise known to man--I am in the chair and the keys are moving.