Friday, January 29, 2010


This morning over a cup of dark-brew Sumatra I finished logging notes from Frazer's The Golden Bough. Jotting down bits of interesting text, ideas, or references from these books is taking longer than I thought, but the end is in sight.

Or is it? The more I read the more I'm interested in, and the more I want to remember and think about next time I'm writing something, whether it's the dim glint of a noonday need-fire in ninth-century Shetland moors, or examples of wolves from Aesop's fables, or Saint-Exupery's thoughts on sacrifice.

What I've been going through recently:

Janina David, A Square of Sky (a child's experience of the Holocaust). At war's end she was asked by a clueless German woman if she was, what, sixty? Sixty-five? She was sixteen years old.

Early Irish Myths and Sagas

Earliest English Poems

Poems of the Sea

John Keay, The Gilgit Game. History of the British, Russian, and Chinese maneuverings in the western mountains of Central Asia. Startlingly poetic.

Katzanzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ.

Adam Nicolson, Seamanship. Bumbling and well-meaning author sails the British coast. From the same author who wrote Seize the Fire, a history of the battle of Trafalgar. Also startlingly poetic.

Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men.

Dave Eggers, What is the What.

Robert de Gast, Western Wind, Eastern Shore

Seven Summits

Michael Alexander, A History of Old English Literature

Fagles, trans. The Iliad

Larrington, trans. The Poetic Edda. Just listen to this: "It is time for me to ride along the blood-red roads, to set the pale horse to tread the path in the sky."

Suddenly They Heard Footsteps

Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights

Laura Miller, The Magician's Book

Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Saint-Exupery, Flight to Arras

Liva Bitton-Jackson, I Have Lived a Thousand Years. Child's memoir of the Holocaust.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas. One of the most interesting and unexpected books I have ever read. Terrible and ultimately uplifting.

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Frazer, The Golden Bough

...and a few more still on deck. Whew!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Area Grouch Wonders What The Hell Is Wrong With Everything

Okay. I've tried to hold back but HOLY CRAP there is so just so much garbage out there. Lest I offend somebody I can't even list the types of books I find inane and insulting through mere fact of their existence. But rest assured they are out there, being bought and sold in numbers to make a banker cackle and to ensure the continued stupification -- stupefaction? Stupie-size me? -- of readers.

And another thing. How hard is to make loaves of sandwich bread in, I don't know, a factory, and have some semblance of quality control? You'd actually have to make an effort to come up with loaves of bread made with the same ingredients, at the same altitude, in the same conditions and by the same machinery, staffed by the same monolith-worshipping, super-orbital-ridge having, vestigial-tail-wagging, atavistic carnival rejects each time. But evidently that is beyond the ken of some of our best known bread companies, resulting in me occasionally getting an "off loaf" that's like chewing an old tire. That ran over a squirrel. And the squirrel is still mostly alive. And the tire is on fire. And I'm being crushed by a giant boulder.

Attention cats: next time you beg for food and then hide when I put the food on the floor, I will permit you to eat each other. Solve two problems right there.

Attention moon: enough with the rising and setting by 2AM. We both know that's total bullcrap. Set at 6AM so I can have some freaking light during my run.

Attention fridge: Do not run out of beer ever again or I will end you. With a hair dryer. Yes, I have that much patience, because I'll be drinking beer from a portable cooler.

To my left knee: Go ahead and act up again. You think I need you? What do you think Righty's for? What's that? What's that? Run only in circles without you? Tracks are round, jerkweed.

Attention television: What's the point of having five hundred channels when 499 are showing garbage and 1 is not available? I know where you're plugged in, so shape it up.

That is all.

Friday, January 22, 2010

More on the Iliad

From the Introduction in the Robert Fagles version:

"It is just as sentimental to pretend that war does not have its monstrous ugliness as it is to deny that it has its own strange and fatal beauty, a power, which can call out in men resources of endurance, courage and self-sacrifice that peacetime, to our sorrow and loss, can rarely command."

This from the translator of the three-thousand-year-old story. I don't know if Fagles was a soldier, or if he'd feel this way had he seen war in person rather than on the page. Dulce et decorum est....

At the same time, I wonder: is he right? Is there a rare and sharp magic to the terrible circumstance of war? Or is that little more than a tweedy post-facto justification?

Never having seen war myself, I can't answer, I can only ask. And maybe that's what good writing, good stories, should do: not answer but ask the question in the first place.

In which case: well done, Homer!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The smell of fir

One of the things I love about wooden boats is all the ... wood ... involved. I like wood. It smells good. It's eco-friendly. I can work it with normal tools and rarely have to get suited up in a Hazmat suit or put on a respirator.

When I take a very, very sharp Japanese handsaw and cut through the end of a 20mm-square strip of Douglas fir, it smells like Christmas. I look at the fresh end, ribboned with tiny growth lines, polished caramel and salmon-pink, one for each year, and am humbled that something that grew in a forest, using sunlight and water and the loamy food of soil, is now going to be part of something else: a curved, angled shape that slips through the ever-changing barrier between water and air, the wave-roughened surface, the whale path, where the long ships and dreams have gone for millennia.

Or so I ponder, standing in my dusty garage in my boatbuilding clothes, staring at the piece of fir that will become the middle layer of my port chine. Months from now, knock on wood, it will be sealed in epoxy and paint, and tucked into the back corner of the under-deck storage space.

But I'll know it's there, knit together with bronze and epoxy and other wood into a thing somehow more than the sum of its lumbery and metal components: a wooden sailboat. Magic.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Verbs show, adjectives tell

We've all heard the phrase, "Show, don't tell" for writing. Don't tell the readers what's going on, or how someone feel, or who someone is, show it.

Like many rules (forks on the left, spoons on the right; balance your checkbook; wash behind your ears), this one is so common I almost don't see it anymore. It had been filed away with other abstract, pithy, and seemingly meaningless catch phrases.

Show, don't tell, I thought. Well, of course. Next?

Then I came across Stephen King's point, though he may not have been the first, that adverbs weaken prose. They're escape pods, slippery little excuses when you can't find the right word, or the right phrase, or the right scene to -- you guessed it -- show rather than tell.

Again, I thought: No adverbs. Check. Next?

Then somewhere I read a similar rant against adjectives. They are weak excuses, poker chips that stand in for bigger and better things. No adjectives? quoth I. How can that be? How can you describe anything without adjectives?

The ball was red. The ball was the color of an October leaf. That's how.

Then it hit me. These two bumper-sticker slogans came together in one of my (all too rare) inspirations. Ready?

Verbs show. Adjectives tell.

Telling: Achilles was sad.
Showing: Achilles wept. Or sobbed. Or collapsed to the ground, his chest heaving.

As writers we don't just report on emotions. We have to transmit them. The story should be a vehicle for emotion. And for some reason, whether it's an obscure psychological tendency or a quirk of language, a rule of semiotics or a footnote in some literary critic's dissertation, verbs have more impact than adjectives.

(Note that I'm leaving adverbs out altogether, useless distracting slippery things.)

So who cares about reporting that someone is sad, or angry, or confused, or determined? Instead of telling those things, show them. How? Pare down adjectives to a minimum, and increase verbs.

Somewhere I read that someone (come on, brain, give me specifics!) counted verbs per written page in an attempt to maximize them. Presumably adjectives were minimized and adverbs were dragged out back and shot.

Maybe it's just me and this emphasis on verbs as the tools of showing is just one more platitude everyone's already heard of. But I tell you what, no exaggeration, it has changed the way I write.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wait! Stop!

It's not just the Iliad. I finally decided to take a look at the knee-high piles of books I keep stepping over, and lo and behold, there are several dozen that will be -- should be -- relevant to my own book.

All this time I've been doing micro-edits at the sentence and paragraph level, but either forgetting about or (more likely) avoiding all the behind-the-curtain research that can add such important details.

There are ethnographies of mountain tribes and accounts of polar and high-altitude explorations. Translated epics from Finland, Norway, Africa. Fraser's Golden Bough. Memoirs of Holocaust survivors. Sailing techniques and details. Theories on pre-Christian conceptions of time and the nature of reality. Victorian travelogues. On and on. It's like Christmas!

Now, I've written about this before (Good god, a year ago!?) at least twice: all the books I need to go read, all the research still to do. But I don't think I quite gave it the priority I should have. By immersing myself in all this background reading, even if each book only gives me something I can use in a single sentence, I can improve my book. Which is really the only measure.

I went through this when I wrote my plaguey master's thesis: sit down with legal pad and book, and write down everything that's interesting. Later, read through notes. Wait for monkey mind to put it all together.

(Or not. Lots of this stuff will get discarded. But the only way to figure out what will provide the killer detail and what's distracting fluff is to start taking notes.)

This comes first. Before the line edits I'd been allowing to take up my time since they allow the ongoing illusion that I'm nearly done. Ha ha, never in life!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Battle Fury

I have recently finished reading The Iliad. I can't even claim to have re-read it, since I stumbled through whatever excerpts were assigned in high school andcollege, skipping much and understanding little.

But now! The rage of Achilles, his poisonous pride, the helpless skittering towards fate of Hector and Patroclus and Achilles himself. And the terrible gods, childish and petty and bickering. To me they were the real villains of the book.

What I found most fascinating was how war -- battle, fighting, hand-to-hand, with all the gruesome violence and immediacy of Bronze Age weapons -- was portrayed. It's terrible, no doubt, but there's also a kind of savage joy, a brotherhood of war that glues together even enemies.

It reminds me of "battle rage" -- a term I first saw in some Dungeons and Dragons manual -- that refers (we decided) to the tantrum-like fury resulting from a stubbed toe or an inoperative tool, or a sweater that doesn't fit right, or a too-small sleeping bag that constricts. Really anything can set it off; there is a kind of joyous release in roaring like a grizzly, baring teeth, and making little hook-fingers like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Not the sort of thing one does at work, though sometimes I am sorely, sorely tempted.

And it got me thinking about my own book, where the two main characters encounter a similar hazy berserker rage, not only in the villains but also -- worse -- in themselves.

Is there a cleansing simplicity in a fury that's so bright it blinds? Or does it simply insulate its bearer from the horrors of war until a different kind of cleansing is needed?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Why am I proud that my New Year's resolution contains an obscenity? Here is the PG-13 version:

No more fooling around. This is the year of not fooling around.

With what? Great question, thanks for asking. With writing, boatbuilding, finding an agent, biking, eating well. Everything. No more delays or (worse) procrastination or (worst of all) excuses.

This is better than some of my other discarded resolutions:

To rock.

To swear more.

To get more haircuts.

To get fewer haircuts.

To be better at separating laundry.

To care about plants.

To use hand lotion more (mainly a wintertime resolution).

To learn how to throat-sing.

To see more praying mantises. Mantii?

To fall down the stairs more often than I fall up them.

To wash dishtowels more frequently, which should be easy considering how dang many we have.

To sweep out the boatbuilding area more.

Yes, the year of not fooling around anymore has just the ring to it. Onward!