Monday, January 31, 2011

Actually, I'd like to go back on the grid, thank you very much

Strangely foreshadowed by thunder, snow descended upon us last Wednesday. Trees laden with the thick, heavy snow bent down to the ground, roads grew slushy and slick, and electric lines began to groan with the weight of all those accumulated flakes. Branches touched the power lines, setting off miniature fireworks.

It was all very beautiful and even exciting at first—and then the power went out. A power outage in January isn't all that bad if it's only for a few hours. Heat lingers, refrigerators stay cold. But the power didn't come back on the next day, or the next. The first night we played games by candlelight and then went to bed, waking to a colder house and a cold breakfast. We put on more clothes as the house grew still colder, then put all the food from the freezer into coolers and buried them in the snow.

Friday morning, after 36 hours without power, the house temperature had gotten down to 46.

There's not much you can do when it is 46 degrees inside, and dark. Even my cat, with her thick fur coat, burrowed under the covers. I had no desire to write or even to read; I-just-wanted-to-be-warm.

I read a quote from the guru Rajneesh once, in which he said that spirituality is only for the affluent.  I poo-pooed this at the time, assuming he meant that he only wanted affluent people to follow him, the poor need not apply. But sitting in the cold, hungry and miserable, I understood this in a different way. I prayed only for the electricity to return, to be back on the grid. Faced with the opportunity of silence, all I could think about was food and warmth.

By the time the power returned, early Friday evening, the house was 41 degrees.

I imagine there have been many writers who have managed to write when cold and hungry, in the past and even now. I salute them—it makes their accomplishments all the more astounding.

(I took this photo a few hours after the snow had started on Wednesday night.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

AVSM Flashback: Birke R. Duncan

 AVSM Flashback is a new and occasional feature in which I'll reconnect with the people who once appeared in the pages of my publication, a very small magazine.

During my self-appointed tenure as a small magazine publisher, I came to dread the once-a-week task of opening  the submissions that were sent me. Most were tedious, poorly written prose and poems that weren’t worth my time or even the amount of postage used to send them.

So it was with delight when I opened an envelope and found quirky gems like Birke R. Duncan’s “Passage of a Moudlyn,” a short, humorous essay in which the narrator pays tribute to his comrade and cousin, Norman Henry Moudlyn. I happily printed it in a very small magazine, issue 18, in 1992.

The last issue of the magazine was published in 1997 and I lost contact with most of my contributors over the years. Then, a year or so ago, Duncan wrote me out of the blue and asked for permission to convert the Moudlyn story into a radio play. I was charmed that he would even ask, since the magazine no longer existed. Since then, “Monty Moudlyn: Founder of the Hug Brigade” has played on select public radio stations across the country. [I am pleased that the back of its CD cover states: “Based on the stories published in A Very Small Magazine, The Ecphorizer, and”]

I asked him Duncan recently about how he found AVSM, how he supports his writing habits, and what else he has in the works.

Birke R. Duncan
Do you write for a living or do something else?
I sell suits for a living. One shop was so dysfunctional that it has formed the basis of a stage play, "Wolfsbane in Mocha," which I'll produce locally this summer. I advise all aspiring writers to get a job they hate, because all fiction arises from conflict.

How did you find AVSM?
I found AVSM in the "Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses."

What prompted you to write "Passage of a Moudlyn"?
It was in a creative writing class in the winter of 1989. The professor was a novelist named David Shields. He told us to write a funeral eulogy. At first, I started writing something serious, but then went for humor. The main character was based on an eccentric friend.

How did you go about turning it into a radio play?
At the time, I had spent several months producing the complicated thriller, "Riders of the Three-Toed Horse." It had bogged down in tedious sound effects mixing. I did "Monty Moudlyn" to give myself a break. A friend has a studio in his sound-proofed basement. We concocted most of the sound effects ourselves.

How did you distribute to radio stations (or get word out about it)?
I looked up , which has a mostly outdated list of radio troupes. I then emailed the groups, to see if they'd like to hear the CD.

How many stations have played it so far?
So far, to my knowledge, two stations have aired it: WFHB "Fire House Theater" in Bloomington, IN, and KUNM "Albuquereque Radio Theater" in New Mexico. Writer/director/host Fred Greenhalgh says he will air "Monty Moudlyn" some day on WMPG "Radio Drama Revival."

Have you made other radio plays or non-print creations?
"Monty Moudlyn" was my penultimate radio drama. The last was "Union of the Snake." A short film version of two other Monty stories goes into production in March.

Monday, January 17, 2011

High school time machine

People from my past are popping up with more rapidity lately, due mostly to Facebook’s cheerful but insistent suggestions that I friend people with whom I have or have had the slightest bit of connection.

Like thousands of other people are also, surely, doing, I’ve pulled down my high school yearbook to search for clues as to who these now-gray-headed people are.

Last night I opened my high school yearbook from my sophomore year to find a name I no longer recognized and it was like an instant time machine. I was once again in the classrooms of Wilkes Central High School, pushing my long, straight hair behind one ear, hoping to be noticed and somehow, and in some way, acclaimed, though most of my actions then didn’t warrant any attention whatsoever. I was pulled back into my adolescent angst and unassuredness, feelings I didn’t especially want to revisit.

I know there are people who remember their high school years with fondness, but my hunch is that not many of them are writers, or at least fiction writers. I began to write in those years out of a loneliness that could not be appeased, no matter how many people I sat with at lunchtime, no matter how long I talked to friends on the phone at night. There was still something I needed to say, some part of myself that needed to be explored and recognized and voiced.

I looked at these teenagers and was amazed at how they all evolved, in different ways, into adults with solidified identities, careers, and beliefs, predictable and surprising. (Who would have guessed that my friend, Rhonda, the only girl on the debate team, would end up a cross-country truck driver?)

There was so much social stratification in my high school that it amazes me now, flipping through the yearbook’s pages, how we were able to tell the difference between the townies and the people, like me, who were bused to the town school—we’re all dressed pretty much the same shabby way, in cheap blue jeans or short-shorts. There were no Abercrombie t-shirts to helpfully mark the rich, no $200 sneakers. One clue was that the popular kids appeared on the pages for the Greek service clubs, the homecoming courts, the teams of country club sports like golf—more frequently on the very pages of the yearbook itself.

Everyone tried so hard in my high school to fit in, to not be on the perimeter or, worse, the fringes of the perimeter. Maybe it’s always been like that in high school, in all times and all places, but the urgency of at my high school was constant and intense. I once forgot to put my belt through one of the loops on my pants and was stopped and chastised throughout the day, even by people I didn’t know. From then on, I tried to wear mismatched socks, my belts half-looped, rebelling in my own quiet way.

All this seemed so important then, and so suffocating, yet I hadn’t thought much about it for years. So it was with relief and gladness that I closed the book, took a deep breath, and reentered my present, unfettered life. But the feeling of teenage angst remained with me for hours. That’s pretty powerful—time machine, mood changer, museum, and history book all in one.

(The picture above is photo of an actual page from my sophomore yearbook—the staff of the Talon, our student newspaper, sitting in the portable classroom where we put it together. I am in the top left.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Huck Finn and the N-word

Much has already been said recently about the new version of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the N-word (which appears more than 100 times in the book) with “slave.” I’m not sure I have much to add to the debate, but I’d like to say something about people who condemn a work with which they have little real familiarity.

When I was a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, I lived in Boone and, therefore, covered any major event or speaker engagement that took place at Appalachian State University. One night, Ralph Abernathy was the speaker and when he took questions from the audience after his talk, someone asked him if he thought that Huckleberry Finn should be banned from schools.

“Yes, I strongly think it should be banned,” Abernathy answered. Having just re-read Huck Finn myself, I couldn’t understand his adamancy. So when it came time for the press to meet briefly with him afterwards, I stood next to him asked him outright, “Have you ever actually read Huckleberry Finn?” Abernathy shook his head and said he hadn’t but he didn’t want to read it.

“But,” I persisted, “it’s a beautiful book that speaks against slavery. Huck embraces Jim’s humanity in the end.” And then, before he could get away from me, I asked him for his address. “I will mail you my copy of the book if you promise me you’ll read it,” I said. Abernathy shrugged and gave me his address. I mailed my paperback copy and never heard back from him. He died a few years later.

I searched in vain on Google just now to see if Abernathy ever publicly retracted his advocacy for banning Huck Finn, but found nothing, not even evidence of Abernathy ever having publicly said it should be banned (perhaps because his statement was made in the pre-Internet ‘80s). I’m not sure if my package ever got to his home or, if it did, if he opened it.

Most people are uncomfortable with the N-word, as they should be—I won’t even say it aloud. I can understand the discomfort teachers might have in introducing a work in which it is used repeatedly. But I also think it has a place and a context in that book. Jim and other black people are referred to with this derogatory label, without any thought by the white people in the book except, finally, Huck Finn himself. He rises above the debasedness of his society and embraces Jim as his friend, willing even to go to hell for his friendship.

We owe it to Twain to preserve the book as he has written it. Surely a good teacher can impress upon his or her students that it is the white people who are in error here, for using such a word, and that every time it is repeated in the book, it is another example of their complacent hatred and stupidity, that with it, they demean themselves.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Paper romance

Mostly, the Washington Post offers news of the right-now, whether politics, tragedies, or entertainment. But there are stories of regular people's lives there, too: in the obituaries (as I noted before) and in its relationship sections, specifically Date Lab in the Washington Post Magazine and OnLove in its Sunday Arts and Style section.

As a former reporter, I should poo-poo this increasing trend of focusing so much news ink on tales of dates and nuptials.  But as a fiction writer, I love being able to peer into people's lives every week, to see what makes relationships click or not, to hear what men and women regard as romance or dating disasters.

To be perfectly honest, a lot of people in the D.C. region are pretty dull. They're smart and well-educated, for the most part, but from a fiction writer's perspective, many of their lives are already on a similar, manifest trajectory: graduate degree, well-paying job, marriage, house in the suburbs in a good school district, children. With so few surprises, there's not a lot of (obvious) potential for a story there. And their stories often sound alike. In OnLove, the men often pop the question to their future wives by getting on one knee in a beautiful locale; the couple then has a dream wedding and goes off to an island honeymoon. They meet because they work in the same workplace, or are introduced by friends. Yawn (and gag).

But then there are the occasional exceptions, the stories of unusual proposals, unexpected matches, or stories of people who are struggling to be together. There have been straight and gay couples who marry, despite one of them having a terminal illness (e.g., "Make sure you do today what you can't do tomorrow"); poignant and unusual stories a fiction writer would be hard-pressed to come up with*; the people who find love a second or third time around (e.g., There's Nothing Like Older, More Mature Love).

And then there are moments that are hard to categorize (from Nuptials,  Jan. 1, 2011):
Shortly before New Year's last year, Mike proposed at home in a low-key moment: After pausing the film "Pineapple Express," he offered Erika an anniversary gift - a ring from Tiffany's. 

(If I were leading a fiction writers' workshop, I would ask the class to describe the scene in further detail, or to write about this couple five years in the future....)

* I wanted to find examples of stories like this, which I've read in the past, but the search engine won't let me find them.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Zines live!

I thought that zines were dead — or, at least, had mostly migrated to the Web — until I happened to visit Internationalist Books in downtown Chapel Hill last week. Maybe this was a surprise only because there are no independent bookstores within easy driving distance of my home in Maryland (save for the tiny bookshop that is more gift shop than book nook). But there in the back of the narrow store was a bookshelf of tiny, amateur-looking magazines with black and white graphics.

It's hard to describe the feelings that rushed over me in that moment—déjà vu, relief, hope and maybe, almost, happiness. It was wonderful to see a group of folks still stubbornly bucking the trend toward electronic publishing, even reveling in their primitive publication methods. Of the four zines I bought, one was typed on a typewriter and photocopied, another was hand set on a printing press, another was hand-assembled, its pages stapled unevenly.

I admire the publishers' perseverance, though I know I'm unlikely to go down that road again myself.

If every action has a counter-action then my purchase of those four zines was perhaps balanced (or weakened) the same day when I downloaded the Kindle App for the iPod I received for Christmas. Already I've put Pride and Prejudice (free) on it and a collection of poetry (also free) from the Poetry Foundation. My excuse is that I sometimes find myself waiting in doctors' offices with nothing to read except a stack of People magazines on the table beside me, mad at myself that I've forgotten to put a book or small magazine in my purse. I tell myself it's better that I'm reading poetry rather than news of Snooki or real housewives, but I'm not sure that I'm innocent of the murder of paper publishing as I flip the digital pages with a flick of my finger...