They’ll always have Paris

FerlThes2A couple of sojourning friends set out for Paris this week, and my jealousy set me to thinking about some of the many Paris-related items that have found their way into my bookcase.

One of my writing and publishing heroes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is pretty strongly associated with San Francisco for obvious reasons, but he spent some deeply formative time in Paris after World War II. He attended the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill from 1947 to 1951 and earned a doctorate there. One of his theses was on the city as a symbol in modern poetry, and he developed a soft spot for the work of Jacques Prevert.

As a collector, I’m fascinated by writers’ tools, especially dictionaries, thesauruses and typewriters. I made my first adult pilgrimage to New York City in 1999, accompanied by a great friend who has her own obsession with writing tools (really high-end fountain pens) to attend Allen Ginsberg’s estate auction at Sotheby’s. I was hoping to have a shot at one of Ferlinghetti’s typewriters that had happened to work its way into A.G.’s stuff,  not to mention Ginsberg’s personal dictionary. Not a chance. Both of them went for easy 4-figure prices. I seem to remember I couldn’t even get the STAND the dictionary was on.

Sometimes, though, you get lucky. Submitted for your approval, Ferlinghetti’s 2-volume Roget’s Thesaurus that he used at the Sorbonne in 1950.

FerlThes1

I paid $9. This year, too. That’s not some 1961 price. Now, you might be wondering, Lawrence Ferling? Did he forget to write part of his name? Well, if he did, he did it twice. It’s the same in each volume.

FYI, he didn’t. Let’s let him explain this bit of puzzlement himself. Submitted for your approval II: A letter sent to his Paris friend, Shakespeare and Company (II) bookstore founder George Whitman.

FerlWhit

This little treasure worked its way into my bookcase thanks to a very cool Australian bookseller who just played a clutch, clutch part in reuniting me with some painfully lost books and soon will be getting  a bottle of very nice Venezuelan rum from me for his trouble.

When they first met in the late ’40s/early ’50s, Whitman had one of those almost laughably bookjammed Paris apartments, and his enterprising buddy Larry/Lawrence offhandedly mentioned that he ought to just open a bookstore so he could have a little room for some furniture and a winerack or something. So Whitman did and resurrected the name of the great Sylvia Beach’s long lamented bookstore, lost to the occupation when she refused to sell a book to a Nazi.

October 1955 is one of those nexus moments for the San Francisco Renaissance. A few weeks before writing that letter,  Larry Ferling was at the Six Gallery reading on Oct. 7 when five fine young poets, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, read some of their earliest works. In Ginsberg’s case, he read this thing he’d dashed off in an apartment on Montgomery Street called “Howl.” Ferlinghetti famously sent A.G. a telegram the next day, namechecking Emerson’s letter to Whitman (the Walt one): “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”

Now, on Oct. 7 or thereabouts, the last part of that telegram would be puzzlingly out of context if you weren’t in the know. Why would Ferling, the owner of a fairly new S.F. bookstore of his own, want the manuscript? Well, he had been working, on the side, on a little publishing project that he wanted to call the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. He even had some letterhead printed up with “Booksellers and Publishers” on it in anticipation. Sometime in earlyish October, ahead of its planned November release, a box with 500 paperback copies of the first book in the series dropped on his doorstep. That book was called “Pictures of the Gone World.” It was by the somewhat longer-and-admittedly-cooler-named Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And he came by the name honestly, as we now know, not as some Beatnik affectation (big difference between a Beat and a Beatnik, BTW), having put the “hetti” back on his name, his “old man’s name,” after going by Ferling most of his adult life.

What a great artifact of an amazing moment of personal, creative and professional transformation.

Look a little closer at the letter, and you’ll notice it’s folded in half. A somewhat curious fold, not really what you might expect if it was put into an envelope. That’s because it wasn’t. It had to have been tucked into a book. Furthermore, that book just HAD to have been a first edition of “Pictures of the Gone World.”

In the interest of science, I needed to test this hypothesis. I happened to have a first edition “Pictures” lying around, just in case something like this ever came to pass. You always have to be ready. SCIENCE, MAN, SCIENCE!

At least it was another smoking deal, along the lines of the thesaurus find, one that I had found semi-hidden in the online stocklist of a cookbook bookstore.

Perfect fit.

DirtyPix

***

Such a nice ending line. Should’ve just stopped right there and gone out for an affogato.

But it’s not really the end. It’s never really the end.

Cool book, right? Sure, pretty nice, but it’s a little worn and used, and that spine’s kinda raggedy. Something that would make most people very happy, smiley and warm inside. But not a freak OCD collector-type person like, well, me. That could be improved at least a couple of grades, right? You know it’s just gonna keep bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and ALRIGHT!

So I found a minty upgrade copy.

And wow, what great condition! Something that would make even a top-end collector happy, smiley and warm inside. But not a freak OCD collector-type person like, well, me. I could probably find a minty copy signed by Ferlinghetti right? You know it’s just gonna keep bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and ALRIGHT!

So I found a minty, signed copy.

And wow, what great condition and such a cool signature! He signs books with a brushstroke style, just like the artist he is, doesn’t he?  Something that would make even a top-end collector happy, smiley and warm inside. But not a freak OCD collector-type person like, well, me. I could probably find a minty copy signed in 1955, right? RIGHT? It’s just gonna keep bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and ALRIGHT!

So I finally bought this minty, signed copy from 1955. October 1955. Technically pre-publication.

PixSigned

And wow, what great condition, and such a cool signature, and — I strongly suspect — signed to an interesting person who hung out on the ’50s S.F. poetry and jazz scene with her sister. Something that would make even a top-end collector happy, smiley and warm inside. But not a freak OCD collector-type person like, well, me. I could probably find a really good association copy, right? Signed to somebody close, right? RIGHT? RIGHT? It’s just gonna keep bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and ALRIGHT! ALRIGHT!

So I bought this, too.

BobPix

A second edition signed as an Xmas present to Bob McBride, partner with his brother, Dick, and L.F. in running the publishing arm of City Lights in the ’50s.

And that’s gotta be enough. For now. Until I find one signed on Oct. 7, 1955, to Ginsberg, Lamantia, McClure, Snyder or Whalen.

Shut up. IT’S GONNA HAPPEN.

Kurt Cobain: RIP, AARP

kurt-cobain-mtv-unplugged-sweater-auction

It almost slipped past me that yesterday would’ve been Kurt Cobain’s 50th birthday. I suppose it still was for him, somewhere.

After all the smoke cleared when Kurt shot his celebrity skin off back in 1994, it turned out that investigators’ best guess was that he finished up on April 5 — my own 23rd birthday.

I mentioned that fact in “Acid Indigestion Eyes,” — which, incidentally, is being released in a new edition this summer by Harmonium Books with a short CD of related music — and that Kurt’s at home with a mess of other people who keep dying on my Happy Birthday of Death. (Hello, Allen Ginsberg. Tell Gregory Corso thanks for letting me rip off his title.) But like the Zen cats tell you, everything contains its opposite, and Kurt’s death was the birth of my voice. I was invited to write something about Mr. Cobain for my newspaper’s features section, and it became the impetus for the Generation X column I ended up writing for the next four years.

So here it is, a 23-year-old kid’s musings on the newest member of the 27 club, coming up fast on 23 years later. (Eds: 2nd lede writethru):

“Hope I die, before I get old.”

Roger Daltrey screamed that line as the frontman for the Hippie generation’s Nirvana, The Who.

Daltrey changed his mind along the way to his golden years, but the words hung in the airwaves, planting themselves in the minds of listeners.

Nirvana’s frontman did die before he got old. And Kurt Cobain did it the old-fashioned way — he did it himself. He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

A lot of words have been written about this one act of a played-out life. I spent a couple days last week mulling it all over, trying to figure it out. To comprehend why someone as obviously talented as Kurt Cobain would kill himself. It turns out, I really did understand. Even the most talented people feel like the most untalented at times. I’ve been there. Sometimes, I think I’m dumb, too.

To reduce it to lowest terms, Cobain wanted out. We’ve all wanted out. But we deal with that feeling in other ways. We take a vacation, or play a guitar, or drunkenly run out of Don Carter’s with a bowling ball.

Kurt Cobain shot himself.

As I was trying to grasp the whys, I found myself wondering what it must have been like. What if, at that last moment, when it was too late to turn back, what if he realized he had just made the worst mistake of his life. Realized that there was nothing he could do before the lights went out for good. It scared me to death.

Joyce Carol Oates said it best: A suicide “leaves the party too soon and leaves the other guests painfully uncomfortable.”

Uncomfortable. Yeah, that’s me.

To get to the crux, you have to get past the hype. The two-dimensional version of Kurt Cobain is all most of us got to see. MTV and magazines. The three-dimensional version is the one that blew its head across a room in Seattle.

The media keeps rambling on about some “voice” being silenced. We didn’t lose our voice. We didn’t lose our fashion statement. We lost a kind heart, a deep mind, a creative soul.

We lost a fellow human being. That’s the Kurt Cobain that should be mourned.

–30–

Peace and anarchy, Grunge generation.

 

 

Books of My Life: “Howl”

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I spent the first year or so of this blog’s life writing about one book: my own.

But that’s what you do now, right? Bleed one out — in my case, collate — get it published however you can and get the word out. Create those calls to action. Get all synergied up.

I intended to stop my … dryheave … marketing  and start my writing resurrection by dropping some latter-day Generation X columns here but ended up taking an oddly neat January-to-January four-year blog break, because life. (For those who just must have the scorecard: year of Hurricane Sandy displacement; return to jazz writing; LiesDeceit gigs, EP and award-winning movie soundtrack; NYDN layoff; NYPost lifeline; full-on WaPo rescue. And editing/designing a buncha fine Codorus Press/Poets Series books, natch.)

I’m deeply haunted by one particular book that doesn’t exist yet, and I really should be writing IT.

In the meantime, I’ve got this old mahogany Globe & Wernicke full of splinters of the true cross that those also in the throes of the bookman’s “gentle madness” might appreciate, so I’m gonna write about those for a bit.

These aren’t just books.

These aren’t just first editions.

These aren’t even just signed first editions.

No, I have some deep need to have and hold these things called association copies, which generally are signed to people somewhat close to the authors. I like to get really, really close, so I have books that belonged to amazing writers who got those books signed to them by other amazing writers. Best friends. Lovers. Enemies sometimes. I even have one rare pearl known as a dedication copy. That’s a book signed by a writer to the dedicatee. My first published book produced both a dedication copy and an anti-dedication copy. There’s a good one for somebody’s catalogue sometime. Maybe.

Whatever I’ve got going on is probably bonafide pathology at this point, but I started with a pretty honorable intention, and still have it: to possess proof that living human beings, not faceless big-font-front-cover names, create art. Hell, in Salinger’s case, that facelessness thing was true for me for years. Pre-Internet, I didn’t have any idea what he looked like until I got my hands on a first book-club edition of “Catcher,” still the only time he ever let an author photo go on one of his books. Pynchon, well he wears a paper bag on his head.

I especially need to possess this proof when I’m having trouble being one of those living human beings — my collection’s growing a lot lately.

And so we go. I’ll follow the advice of the King of Hearts on where to begin.

My beginning was “Howl.”

The damn thing isn’t even a first edition. On cracking it open, it’s a 38th printing — 705,000 copies in print, the colophon declares. It’s my first edition, though, the first copy of this book I could get my hands on in a South Florida bookstore desert in November 1990. I was 19, a college sophomore, and I had read “Howl,” and a bunch of other Ginsberg, but all in his “Collected Poems,” which I sneaked off the library shelf a lot when I was supposed to be doing something else.

Ginsberg was on the schedule to read at Miami Book Fair International, so I was determined to bring him a copy of one of his books to sign to me. I figured I’d get a “Collected.” I was pretty surprised to see the “Howl” stack at this megabox specializing in cheapie remainders where I shopped A LOT. Dollar books were as important as the dollar menu. It was a thrill to finally palm a Pocket Poets Series book. I put it right in my back pocket, too. In my defense, it kinda told me to.

Which dovetails right into … the damn thing isn’t even in nice condition.  I read my copy on the way to the reading over a dollar slice — with a lot of shaken parmesan — and managed to DRIP SAUCE ON IT. Just look at this bullshit.

download-3 I did indeed make it to the reading in my hooptie. I remember being disappointed that he didn’t read “Howl,” not understanding that he’d stopped doing that a long time before. I also remember feeling special a few years later when I saw “Poem In The Form Of A Snake That Bites Its Tail” in “Cosmopolitan Greetings,” because he debuted the poem in Miami, reading it out of a little Moleskine-looking thing. Somebody even shot video, 20-some years before the iPhone. Ginsberg starts at about 39 minutes, but if you’ve got time, Sonia Sanchez is a truly powerful watch. (You can’t see me. I already tried.)

Afterward, all poetry-woozy, I got in the signing line with my pizza-stained “Howl” and passed it to the handler, who handed it to Allen.

“WHO  SHOULD I SIGN THIS TO?”

“uh, wayne …”

“WHO? LAST NAME!”

“uh, wayne lockwood … ”

“Look, I can’t HEAR! WHAT’S YOUR FULL NAME?”

“WAYNE LOCKWOOD!”

“ALRIGHT! OK!”

And here it is.

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Waye. Lockwood.

*FACEPALM*

When he handed me the book, I looked at it, looked at him and said, “A.H.?”

And he looked me right in the eyes and puffed out: “AH!”

I walked away wondering if he’d just written code for “asshole” in my book. It turns out it was his mantra. He was just telling me to meditate. More inside info: Allen asked for last names for a personal reason. If you find a book signed with just a first name, it means Allen got busy with the recipient.

I walked off with my nose in my newly signed title page and felt someone grab my elbow from the signing line. It was my Feature & Freelance Writing professor. She had a copy of “Collected Poems” for Ginsberg to sign. She also had a ticket to the American Book Awards. It was a DINNER ticket, too. She said she couldn’t use it and so, so, so generously gave it to me. So, I was at the dinner and saw Allen Ginsberg and Sonia Sanchez get their Lifetime Achievement Awards. I was too embarrassed to take a seat at the tables. Everyone was in suits, and I was wearing holy Levis and a Bullwinkle T-shirt. I listened in while leaning against one of the exit doors.

I left all high and came down hard when my keys turned out to be locked in my car. One of the suits saw that I was upset, and pulled a coat hanger from his car so I could wire-lasso the doorlock pin. (I was never so thankful for having a shitty 1978 Fairmont. The hanger trick doesn’t work anymore.) He handed me a card, and it turned out that he was a VP at Penguin.

The next day, I stopped by the Penguin booth to thank the suit.  “No problem,” he says, “I was glad to help you. Oh, let me introduce you to Buffalo Bob Smith!”

Bookend poets.

A footnote: When I left the booth, I literally was starstruck by a rushing G. Gordon Liddy. From under his jacket, his piece whacked my shoulder.

Dad’s friend Richard, the writer

“Yeah, Wayne, it’s your dad. I wanted to tell you that my friend Richard, the writer, died yesterday. I heard it on the radio, and they said Richard Cramer, and I couldn’t believe it. He was a nice guy. I’m gonna miss him.”

Richard (Ben Cramer) lived on a farm around the corner from my dad in Chestertown, Md., an odd place for someone who won a Pulitzer Prize for Middle East reporting to plant himself. Or maybe not so odd, when you really think about it. Getting the hell away from everything has helped writers write for untold epochs. Chestertown’s as “the hell away” from everything as anyplace.

Dad leased part of Richard’s farm to grow crops that wouldn’t fit on his immaculate little fruit farm and found a neighborly pal. They were both about the same age. Actually, Richard was a year younger, Dad pointedly liked to point out. They both liked baseball a lot and would toss around their memories of the 50s and 60s. His house was loaded with baseball memorabilia and stacks upon stacks of books and papers everywhere. So is Dad’s house. Just in the garage, there are a couple unruly open-topped boxes of bats that he nabbed from equipment managers for the Phils and Orioles in the 80s. Cal Ripken’s rookie spikes. A set of Bob Boone’s shin guards. Pieces of the true cross.

Richard’s love of baseball is more well-documented. He wrote as much about that game as the one he won his Pulitzer for, that being politics. Maybe better, too.

I read his obit in the Times, and one line jumped out at me. It was about his Ted Williams story in Sports Illustrated. I remember reading that one in 1986 as a 15-year-old. It came in a year’s subscription to SI that my grandpa got me for Christmas. Just amazing. Stuck out like a wildfire in a forest — and this was a fine period for SI. It really got me and Gramps talking for the first time. He started telling me about Ted, and about fishing, and about how he could see Ted abusing Mickey Cochrane that way in a fishing boat, and of course how he (meaning Gramps) caught Dizzy Dean’s home run in the 1934 World Series. Funny how a lot of our baseball discussions ended there.

The best kind of writing makes this happen, even if  just between the reader and the writer, and Richard Ben Cramer had that down. I think it’s what all us writer wretches really want. One meaningful conversation.

Not a shock that Dad and Richard would talk baseball. But they talked life, too. They had plenty in common in the end, this world-traveled, revered writer and my thick-bearded, overalled farmer Dad. Both of them got married early and had their marriages fly apart. Both of them ended up getting remarried fairly late in life. Richard had just married his girlfriend of more than five years. Met her right in Chestertown. Dad had to meet his girl in Elkton and drag her to Chestertown.

They would turn over all this life between them while Richard smoked a stogie (“Man, he really loved his cigars,” Dad said. “And he would cough a lot. I wanted to tell him to cut back on the stogies, but I never did.”). All the things we love kill us. Lung cancer. Dad said he didn’t even know Richard was sick.

I’m sad today that I never took the chance to meet him, didn’t even realize he WAS him, or got to let him know what he made happen between a very old man and a very young one across an impossibly long Florida dining room table. Makes me doubly sad that Dad told me more than a few times about his sports writer friend on the other farm who said he’d really like to meet me and read my book. Heh. Read MY book.

But I think I’m more sad that Dad lost his farm buddy.

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Naturist vs. nuturist: Lost column!

Happened to find this little “lost Honeymooners episode” floating around in cyberspace the other night, and would’ve included it if I’d found it when I was compiling the book last year.

   I’ve lived near the beach all my life, so I’ve had some experience with (I’ll say it the way they like us to say it) naturists.

   When many beach states tried to ban thong bikinis in the ’80s, I laughed along with everyone else, both at the effort and at the sight of the ol’ butt floss.

   I laughed even harder when a woman near me was arrested for nude sunbathing at a state park, and then returned a day later wearing only a thin copy of the Constitution. Guess where the Fifth Amendment was?

    So, what I am about to say shocks even me a bit. Here I write up at you, naked, wearing nothing but a towel.

    Actually, the towel is just for now. Later on tonight, I doubt I’ll be
wearing anything at all.

    It really hit me about a year ago, when that Alanis Morrisette song ‘You Learn,” came out. I know, I know, getting any inspiration from Alanis is suspect and makes me feel kind of weird, but bear with me.

    There’s a line in there that goes, “I highly recommend walking
around nude in your living room to anyone.”

   I thought, “Hmm, I might know a little about that.”

   There’s a certain something so intensely relaxing about sitting, walking, doing whatever in your living room in the buff. It’s not a sexual thing, as I know full well the difference between the naked and the nude. And the even bigger difference between the naked and the nekkid.

    Think about this for a sec: Just imagine how good it feels to take your shoes off after wearing them all day. Then, think how good it feels when your socks finally come off. Same kinda thing.

    A few years ago, I got into the habit of taking a shower
as soon as I got home from work because the pressure and the stress of
everyday business life was driving me out of my skin. Showers have always
had interesting effects on me. I still get my best ideas and do my best
writing (in my head) in the shower.

    Afterward, I usually was just too exhausted to go all the way to my
bedroom to put on sweats. I would get out of the shower, not bother
to put any clothes on and disappear into my bachelor-approved, ugly brown recliner and “Mystery Science Theater 3000” at 3 a.m.

    I’m not so sure that I’m a nudist. It seems to me that most nudists are closet exhibitionists, and naturism is pretty much a front for that. Same way that I might be a spiritual kind of guy, but you won’t catch me dead in a church. Or, maybe you will, actually. Don’t suppose I’ll have much to say about it at that point.

    All I know is that when I was just about to lose my mind, needing to
arrive at the silence of myself and stay there for a really long time every night after work, I was far more relaxed in my birthday suit than in my work suit.

    I don’t get the mail that way, I don’t walk the dog that way, I don’t
sunbathe that way, I don’t do the grocery shopping that way, I don’t drive that way, I don’t get the paper that way. I just, on occasion, write for the paper that way.

    I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. So, if you’ve ever wanted to experiment
with at-home nudism, here are a few tips.
-Don’t read in the nude. Paper cuts.
-Invest in a robe. People have a way of disturbing your meditation.
-Don’t buy white blinds. Get simulated wood grain ones. The TV at night is
just enough light to cast interesting silhouettes.
-No pizza. Imagine the horror the McDonald’s coffee lady went through.
Multiply it.

    Remember, you’re the one that pays your life’s rent. Don’t
let anybody tell you you’re perverted. Unless, of course, you are.


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Freedom and Independence

Let’s start with the Freedom: “Acid Indigestion Eyes” is FREE all weekend (starting on Saturday) to Kindle owners and users of the Kindle reader system on their computers (free download)! And so is “Immaculate Deception” (now!) by pressmate Scott B. Pruden.

This is in honor of Independence, in the form of the Western Maryland Indie Lit Festival in beautiful downtown Frostburg. The Codorus Press crew will be appearing there Saturday with a booth at the book fair featuring hardcopies of all our titles, including “Don’t Be Cruel” by Mike Argento. Both Scott and yours truly will be speaking on a pair each of roundtable discussions.  Scott’s on the novel and sci-fi tables, while I’ll be on the DIY publishing table and the freelance writing table. Tom Joyce, master of disguise, sleight-of-hand and sword-swallowing, and author of the Spring 2013 Codorus offering “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report,” will be freaking out festivalgoers yet again (in the best way).

The shindig is presented by the Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University, and I’m pretty excited to get to talk about The Codorus Way.

Next week, a full report, as well as some musings on cramped New York apartments as inspiration to declutter your prose.

Meanwhile, if you can’t make it to Frostburg, log on to Amazon and drop yourself some free “Acid.”

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The untold story

The first year I had my column, I went back to my elementary school in Maryland as an exercise in generational perspective. I’d put 12 years between me and sixth grade, and got a lot of good situations out of the trip, things like drinking from fountains built for people 4-feet high that used to feel full-sized and noticing how tiny the parking lot was.

Truth is, though, that was supposed to be my first stop, not the only one.

My first high school was up the road, and it let out about an hour or so later. I wanted to talk to a couple of old elementary teachers first, then head to Bohemia Manor to talk to Mrs. Stubbs.

She taught English, and she was the first teacher to ever really hold me to high standards. Try, anyway. She also was the first person to introduce me to Vonnegut, so you know she had to be good.

Sometime in 9th grade, she assigned us to write a short story that involved the might-be toxic sludge washing up on the banks of the C&D Canal. Of course, as you might’ve guessed if you read the last blog, I wrote a short about a high-functioning super-smart toxic sludge monster who was persecuted by slow-minded Chesapeake City residents, chased with pitchforks, rolled around in an oil barrel and whatnot.

She wasn’t buying a word of it.

“Your writing is flippant,” she said after hooking my arm as I tried to dash to my next class.

“Flippant?”

“Yes, flippant.” Her incredibly sharp T at the end stabbed me right in the sternum.

“And you need to get rid of that if you’re ever going to be any kind of writer. Every word you write has this smirking quality to it, worse than just being a smart ass, like you’re better than everybody. You need to quit it. Now.”

Of course, my first thought was that she was completely full of shit. I was a wit, flowing with social commentary of the best kind. She was old and cranky, and just couldn’t recognize cutting-edge writing. I was new wave.

I figured out she was right on my own a couple years later. It was the 11th grade Alien Goats from Planet Scape incident that did it. Because as creative as I was trying to be with that stunt, what I really was doing was being a flippant little shit.

The next creative thing I wrote, senior year, was an essay in the English-Speaking Union’s national contest. I took an Ogden Nash poem, “I Do, I Will, I Have,” a really snarky poem about marriage, and wove it into a narrative of a groom who was about to read it at his wedding as a sorta tweak to his bride, but couldn’t do it when he realized how beautiful she looked and how much he knew she just plain loved him while she walked toward him.
Won me first place, too. Got toasted by an Oxford Shakespeare scholar at a high tea.

Still, I used to hear Mrs. Stubbs’ “You’re flippant” in my ears every night in the empty newsroom when I wrote my column. I made it a point to always be real, to always write from something inside. Sometimes that something inside was kinda smart-assed, to be sure. But it wasn’t ever flippant.

So I marched into little Chesapeake City, a conquering hero 24-year old with a fistful of nationally syndicated columns in my hand, all flip-free, all for Mrs. Stubbs, to show her that I’d listened and turned myself into something.

When I told Mrs. Warren at the elementary that I was on my way up the hill to see her, she sighed and told me Mrs. Stubbs had died a couple years earlier.

I was so crushed that I couldn’t even include it in my column. It was just too damn real.

Anne Lamott talks in “Bird by Bird” about having one or two people in mind that you’re writing for, as if you’re just writing for them. I do have a couple. Charlene Stubbs is always one of them.

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The Origin Tale

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the motivation to create. Why to do it in the first place, what it means, yelling into holes in the ground. That kind of thing.

And that process of untangling the sandy, knotted shoelace of my own psyche got me to tracing back how exactly I ended up becoming a writer. And stopping. And why I’m starting again.

So, the beginning: In first grade, my teacher put out this basket (we called them tote trays, and you put them under your desk as a kind of plastic pseudo drawer to hold your paste and safety scissors and crayons) filled with hand-made staplebound tabloid-sized blank books. There was a sign on it:  “Write your own.” This was just about the most exciting thing that had ever happened. I could see this vast world that I wanted to create, so vividly, just like a movie playing on the back of my eyelids.

I grabbed one of the staplebounds and one of my tote-tray crayons. I called my book “Star Wars.” It was about a farm boy named Luke, who goes off to fight the Empire taking over his galaxy. I even illustrated it, with pictures of all the fantastic spaceships Luke encountered and the final exciting scene where, against the odds, he destroys the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the “Death Star.”

I handed it in beaming with pride like a little 3-foot-high lightsaber.

“Uh, Wayne, these are for writing your own original stories,” she said. “That’s what writers do. You can’t just steal someone else’s idea.”

Of course, I know this to be completely wrong now that I have 35 more years under my blaster belt. I even know what George Lucas stole, and why. But at the time, she was right. She had to be.

I, of course, had nothing else in me.

I didn’t grab another one of those books all year.

The next year, our teacher started passing out these one-sheeters for “creative writing” exercises. They usually had some funky drawing at the top of a funny situation, and you were supposed to create your own narrative. The one I remember most (because Mom saved it) was, “How would you wash an elephant in the bathtub?” My response, and I still can’t figure out exactly what I was thinking, was along the lines of, “I’d scrub him as hard as I could until he fell down into the tub.” Yes, I was a little bit of a literalist back when I was 6. Still didn’t get the gist of the “creative” part of writing.

Or did I? We studied Japanese culture the next year, along with haikus, and we were all asked to write one, with the incentive that they might be published in the local weekly on the school page. This is what I wrote:

Dangling icicle

a  cold, clear dagger of death

dripping winter’s blood

It got published, too. I told Mom, and she ran out to buy a copy on the way to the beauty shop where she worked. She showed it to her beauty friends. One of them put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Is your boy OK?”

Eventually, I did start to write some stories. I remember writing a James Bond parody, “James Clod, 006 1/2,” one summer vacation. I was in my Mort Drucker phase.

By 11th grade, I’d hit the wall with school. It wasn’t holding my attention anymore, and I’d kind of given up putting out a lot of effort. This is a surprising statement, considering I ended up the school salutatorian. I fooled around with a lot of things to keep my spirit alive. Taught myself to play the bass. Ordered a superconductor pellet from the back of Discover magazine just to levitate the magnet and won the county science fair and a scholarship at the state fair in the most scientific of con games.

And then I started terrorizing teachers for fun. On my midterm exams, there were a pair of essay questions. One asked me to explain the function of scapegoats in literary history. One asked me to summarize Dante’s intentions in writing “The Divine Comedy.” I wrote a story about alien goats from the planet Scape and a gothic comedic horror short surrounding a guy named Canto Martinelli who ends up in hell.

I can still conjure up the look on my teacher’s face when she asked me to stay after class, like that hologram of Coltrane in “Vanilla Sky.” The pain. Oh, the pain.

“Wayne. I really should fail you for this. But I just can’t. I know what you’re up to. Just so you know that. But don’t do this next year, or Mrs. X WILL fail you.”

Yeah, I did it to her, too.

So, there you have it. Alien goats from the planet Scape make me do it.

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Sneak peek

 

This post, friends, makes me very happy. Here’s fellow Codorus Press author Scott B. Pruden reading the first chapter of his yet-untitled second novel. His first, Immaculate Deception,” was published by the press in 2010, and has steadily been gaining momentum ever since. At one point very recently, it was in the top-10 on Amazon.com’s satire list.

This time, the novel is set in the present, rather than the near-future, and again in South Carolina, where he was born and bred. Oh, and there are ghosts.

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Contesting contests

“A critic is someone who enters the battlefield when the battle is done, then shoots the wounded.” — Murray Kempton

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the cover of “Don’t Be Cruel,” by Mike Argento. I designed this cover for Codorus Press late last year. I’m happy to say it was my third cover design, and my fifth book design overall. I actually had a pretty distinctive vision for the cover when I finally got my concept nailed down. It wasn’t the first design I tried (more on that in another post on good advice). I wanted the texture of the photo to resemble the grainy nature of 1970s porno films. And I intentionally gave that trigger hand (my hand, actually) a green deathly glow to it.

So, I entered the cover into a prominent contest for independent publishers, hoping like everyone that the comments would come back glowingly stunning, heralding the entry into the marketplace of a genius prepared to supplant Chip Kidd. What I got, however, was both gut-punch and complete reassurance. Everything contains its opposite, my Zen tells me all the time.

I share these results with you to hopefully remind you why you do what you do.

Judge 1:

The cover design is appropriate, albeit trite choice of color elements. The production could be much better, especially the color toning. (on a side note, the use of the sunglasses icon in the interior is very distracting.)

Judge 2:

The front cover illustration is neither a solid rendering or hokey enough play on the sign to sell it. The illustration comes off as too amateur for the category and competition. (interior design needs a total redo, but not judged for this category, just saying.) The back cover is truly a miss for me. From the too large photograph of the author and marginal copy. Having so many complimentary quotes, this was prime real estate for the quotes, which would have helped sell the book through, overcoming the cover. (FYI, this judge also gave me a 10(!) for general/essentials, 9s for appearance and layout, 8 for overall reaction and a 4 for color, so go f-ing figure.)
Judge 3:

Rank #1 Nice use of color, text and photo. Not sure I love the back photo. Reminiscent of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” ( I’m pretty sure Rank #1 means he picked me to win the contest).

So, moral of the story: Who do you do it for? You do it for Judge 3. The one that gets it. Because not everybody does, or can, or will.

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