Crossed Swords in Cross Plains

howard.jpgAt 14, when I first had inclinations toward writing, I couldn’t have told my mom that my favorite writer, the writer who had instilled the desire to write fantasy novels, had shot himself to death.

Such was the fate of Robert E. Howard, creator of pulp fiction hero Conan the Barbarian, a writer credited also with creating the fantasy genre of swords and sorcery.

Mom couldn’t understand my fascination with fantasy, and was probably convinced I was broaching perilously toward the dark side, toward making a compact of some sort with the devil. She confirmed this a few years later by making me get rid of my fantasy novels and role playing games because she had heard such things, indeed, were leading children nationwide to the devil. (I was, though, allowed to keep and continue reading science fiction, as well as comic books.)

Still I wanted to create stories of ages undreamed of, but quenched the yearning for years, and by the time the yearning to write surfaced strongly I had lost significant interest in pulp swords and sorcery, turning toward “serious” fiction of the kind taught in university literature courses, though some of that was fantasy without the swords. I had not, though, forgotten the desire to one day visit Cross Plains, Texas, where Howard lived, wrote and died.

Actually, at 14, a strong tie that I had with Howard was Texas, was growing up in a town not much bigger than Cross Plains, which today still has a little more than a 1,000 people living there. If Howard could be from a small Texas town and write and make a living at it — in the 1920s and 1930s writers could do pretty well writing for the pulps — so could I. I felt that same tie when I first read Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show at 18 (jump that novel’s time frame up by 30 years, and it captures very well to some extent mostly vicariously my experience of growing up in a small Texas town.)

Twenty-five years later, I found myself pelted by fine mist outside the Robert E. Howard Museum — the old Howard home — in Cross Plains, and then greeted at the screen door by an old lady who was doing inventory inside in the room of the house that served as the museum’s book store. (A week earlier Robert E. Howard Days and the Barbarian Festival had been observed. A lot of the books were out of stock.) The lady gave an impromptu tour. The white one-story wood frame house is tiny, with a living room, kitchen, dining room, Howard’s mother’s bedroom, and Howard’s cramped bedroom/writing room, and not much else.

Much of the museum is a hallway of photos and paintings, and period-piece furniture, but there is a copy of one Howard’s manuscripts and a lot of memorabilia — maps of the Hyborean Age world Conan wanders, comics and movie posters of The Whole Wide World, the film starring Renee Zellweger that details Howard’s romance with schoolteacher Novalyne Price Ellis.

I liked adventuring in Howard’s real world, and I imagine it was too real of a world for Howard, especially as he took care of his mother, who, if I understood the tour guide correctly, suffered from tuberculosis. And perhaps that too real world was what placed Howard so far into his imagination, whether it overwhelmed him, or wasn’t world enough. Which, I suspect, is the condition many writers find themselves in — they are never more quite at home in the world as they are when they are re-imagining the world, even when they happen to be that “weird doctor’s boy” in the white wood frame house down the road.


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Name in Print

Be warned, a smug statement follows: I’m a published writer.

But now that I’ve wiped the smug off my face . . . when you’ve spent a significant portion of your life writing with the hope (no matter how much or in what way a writer denies it, publication is a goal) of publication, it means a lot to say you’ve published. And I want to think it’s significant to publish, though anyone with access to the Internet can publish and publish for free — a wonderful thing in a democratic society.

I’ve recently published freelance journalism, and I spent nine years at a daily newspaper where I published at least once a week, but the most meaningful publications so far have been the two short stories I’ve published online at Pindeldyboz. (You can read those stories; I’ve posted them here under the heading Short Stories.) A recent post at Lisa Romeo’s writing blog about publication in the New York Times, and the process a 4,000-word piece went through to become an 1,100-word piece, had me thinking about my own longing to see my fiction published, and the process it took to get the stories published.

I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until I was about 20, closer to 21, and it took me almost 15 years to get a story published. The Arc of the Cosmos is a very short story, about four pages in manuscript, and when I finished writing it, I had a sense it would be published.

I first sent it out to Glimmer Train, before sending it to Pindeldyboz. I imagined the story on Glimmer Train‘s slick paper, but they decided not to publish it.

I had seen an ad in the back of Paris Review for Pindeldyboz, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a little literary magazine advertise both a printed version and an online version. I checked the site out, read through some stories, and submitted The Arc of the Cosmos (it wasn’t my first submission; I’d sent a longer metafictional story that was rejected because the editors didn’t like stories within stories).

Some time later, I received an e-mail saying my story had been accepted (I had submitted the story via e-mail too. Oh the wonders of the electronic age!). I was a published fiction writer.

I had tried something different with that story. After I’d finished my second draft (mostly copy editing), I read the story into a tape recorder, and listened to it, and revised as I listened. (I hate the sound of my recorded voice, so it was something a painful experience.) The technique I derived from Susan Power’s essay “The Wise Fool” in The Eleventh Draft.

I think hearing the story read aloud, even if it was me reading it, helped in the revision. Many writers suggest reading your manuscripts aloud, and I don’t quite understand why it seems to work, but it does.

But that was the process my first published short story went through before the rest of the world got a chance to read it. A year later I published my second story The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber, and getting it published was even more satisfying than my first. Of the stories I’ve written, published and unpublished, it’s one of my personal favorites.

I haven’t published a short story in four years, though I’ve submitted them. Successful publication brings hope, and humbles you, once you realize the rest of the world can read what you’ve written and can love it, hate it, or completely ignore it. And rejection still stings. But, I’ll keep submitting, and I’ll keep writing, because that’s what a writer does.

Only Dissolve

It took me a long time to appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald. In my twenties, I was too obsessed with Hemingway to give Fitzgerald more than a nod.

But then, a few years ago, I read Frank Conroy’s essay “Great Scott” (collected in Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On: Observations from Then and Now) and I became curious about what I’d missed in Fitzgerald. (I was infatuated with Conroy’s writing when I read the essay; I wanted to get inside his writing and understand it as a writer, and I’ve found it helps to read the writers other writers read. Also, isn’t it mysterious as readers how we are drawn to particular writers at a given time, how we latch onto a writer and want to read everything he or she has written? Or that’s often the kind of reader I am. Sometimes after a book or two I’ve had enough, and have to put the writer aside, perhaps never to return.) Anyhow, I reread The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald suddenly sank in.

Another writer — Francine Prose — has led me to read Tender Is the Night to see if I could see what she saw in the power of his writing, in the power of word choice. In Reading Like a Writer, Prose notes how Fitzgerald could “at lazy moments . . . resort to strings of cliches, but in the next paragraph he could give a familiar word the sort of new slant that totally reinvents the language.”

As I read — a first reading — I wasn’t as attentive to detail as Prose is in her reading. In a brief couple of paragraphs she talks about the novel’s opening scene and points to Fitzgerald’s unusual use of the word deferential and notes how the phrase “rotted like water lilies among the massed pines” evokes what “will come to seem increasingly applicable to much of what happens in a novel that is partly about the dissolution and decay of romance and beauty.”

I didn’t catch this detail or make such an association when I read, but as I reflect back over my reading, Tender Is the Night is “partly about the dissolution and decay of romance and beauty.” That’s what happens to Dick and Nicole Diver’s marriage — it dissolves.

But so does the world the Diver’s live in, the world of champagne, caviar and resorts on the French Riviera. It’s a novel, as is Gatsby, about the Jazz Age, or rather that age passing. Already, in the novel’s backstory, is the slaughter of the First World War that broke the back of Western tradition, and brought forth the Lost Generation scrambling to make sense of the war’s chaos by muddling through that chaos.

Ahead of that generation is the Depression, the rise of fascism, another war. The Diver’s world is already dissolved and they have further broken with it.

A poignant scene about midway through the novel captures the break with the old world. Dick has returned to America briefly to attend his father’s funeral.

Flowers were scattered on the brown unsettled earth. Dick had no more ties here now and did not believe he would come back. He knelt on the hard soil. These dead, he knew them all, their weather-beaten faces with blue flashing eyes, the spare violent bodies, the souls made of new earth in the forest-heavy darkness of the seventeenth century.

“Good-by my father—good-by, all my fathers.”

It’s the sad break with an old world, the kind of break we seem to be experiencing now. Wars and rumors of wars. Caesars rising and striving for power. A kind of post-9/11 grief, because we don’t have the same world to go back to that we once did.

Or perhaps it’s just my own grief buried in the Diver family plot: the loss of my own parents, a sense of chaos and uncertainty present at a time when I long for a sense of stability. A sense of dissolution overwhelming me. I can’t go home again. And yet moving forward seems just as frightening and uncertain.

Or perhaps this is just the way Fitzgerald makes you feel when you read him: You understand grief and loss better, understand that the world can dissolve and fade away, only to return again full, a beacon blinking from a distant pier. And so you go on, beating your oars against the current, believing in the green light.

Hold Me Back

In 13 Ways of Looking At the Novel Jane Smiley writes about how novelists tend toward either broad or deep when it comes to scope. She notes comic novels tend to be broad in scope, and novels with a broad scope tend to rely on pattern and breadth.

“Some readers are happy to give up depth for pattern or breadth, for the sparkle of the author’s vision, wit and intelligence . . . . [B]road necessarily makes a pattern and so is intellectual and abstract,” she writes.

By deep she means psychological depth: “The prime example of deep is, of course, Madame Bovary. At the time of its publication, no previous author had ever gone so deeply into the psychology of a single character, especially a female character with all sorts of female weaknesses.”

Of course no novel fits perfectly in either category, and some novelists, according to Smiley have tried, particularly in the 19th century: “Novelists of the 19th century tried over and over to get both broad and deep.”

At its surface Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence seems broad in scope, as she covers a whole social realm: aristocratic New York in the late 19th century.

Wharton’s fiction seems a bridge between19th century social realism and 20th century modernism, because just underneath her social portraits is a teeming psychological depth held in check not by Wharton, but by her characters themselves and their emotional restraint.

Main character and narrator Newland Archer reveals this restraint late in the novel in a scene where he is sending a telegram.

Lefferts, who was known to shrink from discussion, raised his eyebrows with an ironic grimace that warned the other [Archer] of the watching damsel behind the lattice. Nothing could be worse “form,” the look reminded Archer, than a display of temper in a public place.

Such restraint fills the novel and induces Archer toward looking for something less restrained in the form of Ellen Olenska, an American (and New Yorker) who has been scandalized by her European count husband, and has returned to America after years in Europe. Madame Olenska, in turn, scandalizes old New York by her maintenance of an aristocratic European lifestyle.

In the end Archer only flirts with Olenska, and restraint leaves him with a what-could-have-been scenario that he never lets go through marriage to May Welland, through children, and into old age. Even after May dies, and Archer gets presented with the opportunity to perhaps change the what-might-have-been, he restrains himself.

He watches from a park bench as his son goes up to Madame Olenska’s apartment. The novel ends with him and his memory of a past, and his assumption that memory is better than the possibility of fulfilling his yearning, and perhaps, it seems, coming to regret it.

And restraint seems uncommon in the 19th century novels I’ve read so far: Whereas Tolstoy’s aristocrats or Flaubert’s bourgeois get swept up in their self-created dramas, Wharton’s characters seem to bury the drama under surface details, and even this element seems a bridge between the 19th and 20th centuries, and is reminiscent of Hemingway’s iceberg theory before Hemingway had posited that theory. (Hemingway was just beginning to publish when Wharton won the Pulitzer in 1921.)

But Wharton’s dwelling on surface details doesn’t diminish the depth at which she explores character. She is particularly acute to American psychology. Restraint and emotional reserve tend to be characteristics not only in American fiction, but also in American life itself.

Most of the Time

Under Pages on the sidebar you’ll see a link to the first chapter of my novel Most of the Time. This is the second draft of the novel manuscript. I’m planning to post at least the first three chapters to see if I get any comments or critique.

And if anyone would be interested in reading the whole manuscript, and giving me a critique, please post a comment and let me know and perhaps we can arrange something.

I’ve been working on this book for about two years. I want to have at least one other person other than myself read the manuscript and give me a serious critique. It’s the third booklength manuscript I’ve written and one with some more refinement I might actually submit.

Anyhow, I look forward to hearing from you.