The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) by Charles Dickens
When you're learning how to write, and you want to write, one of the best activities you can think of is to keep a journal. I'm not talking about a diary, I'm talking about writing anything that pops into your mind. The last journal entry I made was this: How come death is never a she? I could be wrong about that. It's entirely possible somone's referred to death with a feminine pronoun, I just can't think of one off the top of my head. No matter.
I've always lamented the fact I didn't keep a journal in Vietnam; there was certainly plenty of downtime, much time spent sitting on bridges where nothing happened, where I once bought a fifth of whiskey from a Vietnamese villager and got very drunk, then was very remorseful, then was grateful I didn't go blind or die. It never occurred to me then to keep a journal, and I wish I'd cateloged those names and places. I wrote some lame romantic letters to a girl I was in love with, but I never considered one day that I might want to refer to my experience, or just simply remember where I'd been, which I often cannot.
It's obvious to me now how immature I was, how much I lacked a sense of purpose, so much so that I lived every moment wishing I could return home, and not knowing what I'd do once I got there. And I'm absolutely sure my journal entries may have been just as trivial, unless of course, I wrote something honest. Being a writer wasn't on my radar, let alone starting a PhD program when I was 40 and getting my first teaching job at a small college in Colorado at age 46.
When I speak of writing something honest, I'm not necessarily talking about writing the factual (Just the facts, Mam); instead, I'd rather talk to the issue of what might have come from a journal had I kept one, which may have led me to understand something about youthful folly, about being a pawn in the Military Industrial Complex, about my personal morals, my code of conduct, my acquiesence to authority and control, how I gave up my freedom when I let myself be drafted (prison or exile--pick your poison). Naturally, I came to understand aspects of all these concepts, but it took a lot longer to see into the heart of things, and that's what matters, looking straight into the heart of my experience and coming to conclusions I didn't find comforting. Writing is often said to be a process of discovery, and what I discovered wasn't particulary pleasant. But if you're going to write, you must consider the varacity of your fictional idea. John Gardner said that fiction is a continuous and vivid dream. Without revealing a specific truth in your stories, you may have nothing more than an idea, and that is never dramatic. The idea is telling readers what to think, but the drama reveals it as it happens.
Now I understand why Sgt. Curtis read so much; he read on the side of a trail; he read when he pulled guard duty; he read when we stood down on a firebase or on the beach at Da Nang, and the books he read were big ones, like David Copperfield; he read them because they allowed him to escape into drama, to divorce himself from the tedium and fear that was Vietnam, that was a far cry from the moments of terror that mostly lasted less than ten minutes. He wrapped Copperfield in plastic and kept him dry in an empty ammo can, like a best friend--before I knew books could be your best friends.
Or so it seems. . . Here's the truth. I'm aging and so are my contemporaries, which I'm reminded every time I open Facebook. My mind is full of memories--many of which often elude me, often fade in and out. It's all part of the process I'm told. The short term doesn't work as well, but the long term keeps on giving, and sometimes in remarkable detail. There have been countless times I've said to myself: "I'll never forget this moment." But I do and I have. I like to remind my students that I've probably forgotten more experiences than they've had simply because I've seen more, done more, and lived longer.
In the past I've given students a writing assignment: Write about a memorable experience, I ask of them, and what I get are car wrecks, dying grandparents, divorces, other memorable events that are predominantly tragic. Rarely does anyone write about a positive experience, a joyous moment, something that changed a life beyond simply writing about loss. Perhaps we're all a bit guilty this way. The older we become the more we know and understand that everyone's life is tragic to a degree and that suffering cannot be measured.
See that boy in the photograph? The one in the striped shirt? His name is Rick. He had his share of tragedy, abused by a stepbrother, a soul lost in Vietnam, alcoholism, homelessness, esophgeal cancer and then a brain tumor. Finally in hospice care and then his death a few months back. I didn't know him well the last couple years of his life. We were estranged by his alcoholism and by distance.
But when I look at this photo, I don't think about those things. I don't want to. What I want to think about is the time we were chased out of a field by a German Shepard, how we leapt over a barbed wire fence, tearing our trousers. I want to think about how we laughed about it, how we told the story over and over. We were twelve and ten. He was younger. I want to remember a time in Bay Port, Michigan, when the water in Wildfowl Bay was so shallow one year we nearly walked to North Island, about three miles off shore. How we just kept walking to see how far we could get before we'd have to swim, and the carp that swam passed, startling us, making us wish we had spears or bow and arrows. I want to remember all the times we went fishing, and how I made Rick laugh when I threw my nightcrawler into the lake and said, "You're free to go." Because everything is funny when you're a boy.
As someone who tries to write, these are the experiences in my real life I want to remember, but I think I'll share the tragedy in fiction, where it belongs. I think I'll put it there because there's so much of it and I'm tire of thinking about it.
At age twelve or thirteen I read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Since I was an only child, I spent a great deal of time alone and in my imagination. I didn’t have any way of knowing that later in life I’d want to be a writer, but I did begin to understand the power of storytelling. I loved that book so much I read passages of it over and over because I read it as a boy’s adventure story. I repeated the stories often to my friends, mostly arguing how great it would be to go down the Mississippi River on a raft, to camp on mysterious islands, to spent all day doing nothing but fishing and watching boats go by on the river.
One of my friends had the misfortune of having two first names. His name was Stacy Frank, which our teachers always got backwards and he always tried to correct. Stacy was a patient friend, whose love for adventure was as great as mine, but he lived in the real world and I lived in imaginary worlds I found in books. Yes, I was a nerd. And I was passionate about the books I was reading. When there was no one around to hang out with, I walked to our local library about a mile from my house and spent hours looking at books and daydreaming. Anyway, Stacy laughed at me when I said I was running away to the Mississippi. I suppose almost every eleven or twelve year-old-kid entertains the thought of running away at some point because the world is a cruel place.
I tried to get Stacy on board my imaginary raft, the one I’d built in my mind, the one I could see clearly in Huckleberry Finn as my destiny. Stacy Frank said things like, “I don’t think so, Learst.” He said things like, “Where are you going to get logs that big to build a raft?” Yes, Stacy Frank was anchored in the real world, he was practical. As far as I was concerned, I was already on that raft (the one in my imagination) and I tried to convince him by telling him stories from the book, how Huckleberry Finn’s father was a no good drunk, and steals Huck from the Widow Douglas, the woman who tries to give Huck a home. I told stories about almost being run over by a riverboat, and meeting Jim, the slave for whom Huck develops a strong friendship. But Stacy Frank wasn’t biting.
Well, I said, that hot summer Sunday afternoon, I’m going to the Mississippi River whether you are or not. I’m going by myself. I’m not afraid, I told Stacy Frank. I was sincere and I was a great adventurer, at least in my mind. That night I was sick and on Monday I stayed home from school. Stacy Frank went around telling everyone I’d run away to the Mississippi. He even said so to a few teachers.
On Tuesday, while I was standing at my locker, a group of kids walked by….One of then said, “Hey there, Huckleberry,” and they all laughed. All day long and for the rest of that school year I was known as Huck. The smart kids called me Huck, the jocks called me Huck. At first I was embarrassed, but then the notion of it kind of grew on me. In a weird way I’d become a celebrity. Apparently I had convinced Stacy Frank that I’d really gone to the Mississippi River, had told the stories with enough detail to convince him of my seriousness, and armed with that knowledge I began to understand the power of stories, how they held me in their grip, how they allowed me to go places I’d probably never go, but while I was held captive by them, they were, for a time, for me, more real than my own life.
It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I’ve read it through completely as least three times, maybe four—it’s not a small book—but when I tell this story I’m reminded how powerful is the imagination; it has the power to transform a person’s world, the power to take you places you might not otherwise go, and this can only happen through reading. And through reading you will become a better writer, a better storyteller. Talking about it makes me want to read Huck Finn at least one more time.
Beginning writers frequently wonder what they might write about and usually write about subjects with which they have very little experience. Mostly, I think, this attitude seems to be coming from a lack of understanding about their own experiences. Often, if you ask a student about his or her life, the response is frequently: "My Life is boring." Anyone who writes, of course, knows this is far from the truth. It seems to me that everyone's life is rich with experience, where you grew up, how you lived, what your parents and siblings or guardians were like, who you hung out with. Whenever a student tells me that, my response is this: "I don't believe you." They look at me funny as if I've accused them of lying. "Tell me about one of your aunts or uncles," I'll ask. More often than not, I hear stories about quirky Aunt Mary or strange Uncle Louie, who was always coming to dinner, but never brought anything to the house. And Aunt Mary's lipstick was always bright red or that she wore expensive outfits to a backyard barbecue. Sometimes I will ask them to tell me something interesting about where they lived. "Nothing ever happened there," they say.
"Nothing?" I say, and then I ask, "Did you or one of your friends ever do anything that was unusual or dangerous now that you look back on it?"
"Well, there was this one time when we were in high school and we'd all gone out into the woods and started a fire. Someone had some shotgun shells he threw into the fire and everyone ran."
"That's not boring!" I say, "That's crazy."
"Yeah, it kinda was..."
"Write about it! Put it in a story," I tell them, "Fictionalize it!"
If you're going to be a writer you must be curious about the world you live in, where you came from, who your people were, and you must want to explore that history. This is the mine shaft were the gems are found. But you have to dig them out.
All of my stories are generated by moments from my personal history. Recently, I've been working on a story that takes place in 1931. It's a gangster story. What do I know about the 1930s? Not much. Surely not from personal history. But while doing my research I came across a photograph of the Eastown Theater near the Van Dyke and Harper area on the east side of Detroit. There were two moments in my personal history related to that theater. I lived four blocks from there and on weekends my friends and I went there. We were seven or eight years old, but it was close enough and we traveled in a pack, so my parents let me go. A few months before my mother had taken me there to see Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments, a movie that traumatized me. It came out in 1956 so I had to be seven years old. I was freaked by the parting Red Sea, the rivers and cisterns that had turned to blood, the Pharaohs staff that was turned into a snake. Jesus, that was scary. Years later, and when I had returned from Vietnam, the Eastown theater had become a concert hall. It was the early '70s, and I went there to be part of the rock scene, to be part of the freak show that was sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
My point is this: Here were two moments in my history that revolved around a popular theater that figured predominately in the world of 1930s Detroit, and I had been there, the city was alive then as it is now, and I had been part of it on two separate occasions separated by 20 years; in fact, the Eastown opened its doors in 1930. So somehow my personal experience has wormed its way into my desire to write a gangster story because I had lived in that city, that neighborhood, and that city had spawned gangsters that even my grandfather had claimed to know, the same grandfather who sold numbers when he worked at the Ford Plant. This is my history. This is my fiction.
Most people give me a strange look when I tell them I worked on “Point Man” for eight years. It was the story that wouldn’t go away, wouldn’t leave me alone because I knew it was a story I wanted to tell, but I didn’t know how; I didn’t understand the craft of fiction well enough to give my characters life, to make them believable. “Point Man” began as a clichéd war account. It changed point of view several times before I settled on third person limited omniscience. I discovered the story’s center one day while rewriting and realized it was a story about the debilitating psychological aftermath two characters experience after Vietnam. One night I went into a neighborhood tavern in Detroit and ended up sitting next to a Vietnam veteran. It was 1973 and we were talking about the war, how good it was to be home, and buying each other drinks. Then he suggested we flip a quarter to see who would buy the next round, when the bartender, a young woman, told us we couldn’t gamble in the bar. I think we looked at her and then at each other and started to laugh.
The other vet said that we weren’t gambling, we were both Vietnam veterans and we were just trying to figure out our heads from our tails. It would be nearly 20 years before that line found its way into “Point Man” and I knew I had something significant to reveal—the awful irony of our experience very few people would ever understand. I also knew the story had to be in first person, so I rewrote it again.
Paranoia, they’ll destroy ya… ~Kinks
A note came to me the other day from an old friend in Detroit and I totally misread the comment that was intended to compliment Dancing at the Gold Monkey; instead, I went on the defensive, thinking that what my friend meant was that there was a direct correlation with real events. I could not have been further from the truth.
Got your call late last night so didn't call back. Your message sounded strange. I re-read your email this morning and wanted to respond to something you said about knowing these people. Did you mean knowing them in an actual sense or knowing them in a fictional sense, as if they "could" be real? The reason I ask is because other people have said they know these people, which is good for a fiction writer like me, right? It means I've created characters that are authentic and believable.
A captain in the army (served in Vietnam the same years I did, 1969-70) responded that he also knew these people, they were like his friends, and family, and other soldiers he had known. In that way he felt the book was relevant to a lot of peoples' experience with soldiers returning from combat. Though I never could have possibly imagined it, that's the best reaction to the book I could hope for because it's intended to be a representation of how war fucks people up, to put it bluntly. I'm hoping readers will understand it as an anti-war book.
Okay, back to the characters. If you recognize any of these characters I think it's because of the environment within which they move. Each character is a composite of a lot of people I've met through the years--one of the strategies for making characters that I try to get my creative writing students to consider so they are not writing about the "real" people they know. Real people don't function well in fiction--they have to be saved for the memoir, and even then they have to be characterized to be interesting.
But Dancing isn't a memoir--I could never tell the "truth" about my early days in Detroit for a couple of reasons. One is that I can't remember a lot of it... Another reason is that fiction allows for metaphorical possibilities to create situations I hope come across as dramatic. What's a story without drama?
Anyway, I hope this note doesn't sound like a lecture in creative writing. I'm guilty of professing when it comes to writing fiction, and there are few things more annoying... If there is anything in any of the stories that is close to my experience, it's the stuff about the little boy's mother in the first story.
Does one see one's self in fiction? I hope so. That's why I read.
When I was in the writing program at Oklahoma State University, some fellow students I encountered refused to re-write. Baffled by their resistance, I began to doubt what I was working on. Was I paying too much attention to some of the same stories that were part of an earlier MA thesis? Was this a kind of double-dipping or cheating? Was my imagination so stunted that I couldn't come up with new material? Was I subconsciously trying to avoid writing or more work? These questions weighed heavily on me; in fact, I began to doubt myself so much--being an insecure 40-year-old student in the program--that I went to see the head of the creative writing program, Dr. Gordon Weaver. I confessed that some of the stories I had submitted to workshop were the same ones I'd been working on for a few years. Gordon had a puzzled look on his face. "So?" he said. When I expressed some doubt about whether or not this was fair game his reply was simple. "It's all writing, Learst," he said, and I was relieved. And as I continued to revise, the stories evolved into something different, and they got better.
They were no longer the stories I'd started at Northern Michigan University because they had transcended my earlier attempts to write fiction, which I obviously did not know how to do. The more I revised, the more the stories became stories worthy of publication, and published they were (I worked on "Point Man" for almost eight years until it was finally published in War, Literature, and the Arts and then as part of my collection). For me, learning the craft of writing was an exceptionally slow process. It's takes me a while to get on the learning curve, and I'm easily distracted by life. In the Oklahoma program, which was just as rigorous for us creative writers as it was for the literature track people, students in the writing program seemed to have difficulty with revision (I see it now as I teach undergraduates), and I'm not sure why. There is probably some psychological or philosophical answer to this question.
Students who resisted re-writing for whatever reason were the students who were most prolific. Instead of working on something they'd made for workshop, they continued to crank out new stories, very few of which had been published. They possessed so much great material that it seemed to me a waste not to go back to it. Perhaps one day they will. Here's my point. Some stories are hopeless and we have to let them go, but most of the time the material we already have is worth more consideration and attention. After all, there must have been a spark, a desire, a strong emotion that inspired the story in the first place. Work it through, find the core of its truth and be honest in your portrayal. If your fiction changes into something you did not intend and you discover something you didn't know, let it happen and be grateful.
In this first blog entry, I just want to note how important it is to enter contests. The rationale for entering contests is simple. They create recognition, which we writers need (even if we don't like it) to get our names out there. You can never tell who will see your work and respond to it. I entered an essay called "The Blood of Children" in Water~Stone, a journal published at Hamline University. Though I did not win the competition for best essay, people began to notice my work. From this publishing experience came a radio reading, a reading at the Minnesota Arts Board, and it was reprinted in an online journal called Perigee. There are a couple concerns: First, do your research. Who is judging? What kind of literature has that person published. Is the entry fee worth the amount awarded for 1st Place? Contests are used to generate money to fund journals and presses. It's a good idea to make sure the journal or press is a member of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses [CLMP].
If it's a small press, it's easy enough to find out their publication history. Look for names you recognize and then look the authors up on the internet. Small presses are a wonderful opportunity, especially if they have a history, like Leapfrog, for example. Research whether or not the small press adequately works to promote your book. You will have to do some of the work yourself, but you should not have to do all of it. Leapfrog Press, for example, has a small staff and a publicist. My experience with Leapfrog has been very rewarding and I have enjoyed every step of the process. Be involved, express your opinions. Small presses are often a better deal because they give you more attention. The big publishing houses will forget about you after they've gotten rid of as many of your books as they can. It's about profit, but the small press is about the writing, the subject matter, and the author.