Waiting to be made Formless as a seed Lightless in the void Breathless, coiled and waiting, waiting Waiting for the word Weightless as a thought Trembling on the verge Nameless, cold and waiting, waiting Waiting for the light Breaching from the sky Sparking into life Promise curled and waiting, waiting
Guest post by Alexander Cherny
** Puddles **
Pud. Dulls. Puddles.
You’re walking in the woods and the path gets muddy and then there’s water pooled ahead. That’s a puddle.
You can walk through it or you can jump over it. You might consider what shoes you’re wearing before you splash into it, because they’re going to get wet and dirty. Same if you’re a dog. You’ll have to lick your paws clean later.
Puddles happen downhill. You can find a low point by where the water puddled. What does it mean to say low point? Means, like, where a marble will stop if it’s rolling.
Air is the sworn adversary of puddles. You leave a puddle out unattended in the sunshiney air and it will backward-melt.
Puddles are made of water but you can imagine a puddle made of something else. Milk puddle. Blood puddle. Puddle made of dreams. You could possibly experience vivid hallucinations by staring into a dream puddle. Puddle made of music. You stir the puddle with a stick and a melody comes bubbling up.
What’s the difference between a puddle and a pond? Just, like, the limits of your imagination, man.
Wishing you the best of luck with all your future puddles.
Planet Urff by Alexander Cherny is presented as a public service for the education of animals, aliens, and artificial intelligences.
I self-published in 1980. That’s right: before it was easy, before it was cool.
I was fortunate enough to attend the University of Iowa, where if you aspire to write fiction, you’ll get plenty of encouragement and support. I signed up for multiple sections of fiction writing, poetry writing, and the undergraduate workshop. Eventually I took so many creative writing classes that the registrar would not grant credit for all of them. (I graduated anyway, with a degree in Communication Studies.)
I also had a regular writing group, which met on the front porch at Joseph’s house. I’m grateful for all the members of that group, including Lorraine, Kent, Harry, and Stephanie. Everybody who’s serious about writing fiction should have a group of people they respect and admire, to critique and give feedback.
In spring 1980 I signed up for an Introduction to Typography class taught by Kay Amert. The final project for the class was to set type for a book, by hand, and to print copies, one page at a time, with ink rolled across the type. We used letterpresses belonging to Windhover Press in the Journalism building.
I sweated Original Causes that whole semester, carrying around scraps of paper with test print paragraphs. It took many hours to hand-set the type, one letter at a time. The story went through multiple drafts with my group, and I appreciate their patience hearing it over and over.
The extraordinary artist Jim Carpenter provided the illustration for the cover (copyright 1980 by Jim F. Carpenter, all rights reserved). It had been on a concert poster, and I repurposed it, with his permission. I revised my story to incorporate the cover scene. Carpenter also designed my logo for the Tea Stain Press.
I intended to print 100 copies of Original Causes, but I screwed up cutting the paper for the cover, and as a result I could only produce 75. The book earned me a B for the course. I made quite a few poor design decisions, most notably using too big a typeface on the cover. My margins were misplaced as well. Since every book was printed by hand, some of the copies were in better shape than others.
And yeah, Original Causes was for sale at the Prairie Lights Bookstore, where they had a rack for independently-published authors. At a buck a pop, I sold five copies, which didn’t put me on any bestseller lists. I gave away the rest of the press run, and now I only have one copy left. Here’s a PDF scan of my last remaining copy of Original Causes, copyright 1980, all rights reserved.
Hoping to get around to the sequel eventually.
My friend Ed says retired guys like me should get up early and get in gear. It’s good advice! I’d never dispute it, but I’m not stellar at following it.
Maybe this is only an excuse for sleeping late, but people doing creative work need dream-time. I like to wake up in the morning and, before I open my eyes, nail down what I was dreaming. I might remember a whole complicated narrative. Sometimes it’s good enough to write it in a dream journal. Not too long ago I dreamed that a robot was telling me a fairy tale and telling it very poorly. That dream became the story “The Elves and the Shoe Designer,” which is my contribution to Pages Penned in Pandemic. Now available, highly recommended!
I’m interested in lucid dreaming, where you try to become aware that you’re in a dream and take control. It’s suggested that you use lucid dreaming to ask an important question. I already have a question in mind: “Why don’t I fly in my dreams?” I find that I do a lot of walking in my dreams, and I get lost pretty easily, and I quite often forget what I was carrying and leave it somewhere in the dreamscape and then I worry about how I’m going to get back there and find it. But lucid dreaming is challenging. It’s hard to partially wake, just enough that you’re aware, but still in your dream.
I have been working on song lyrics this week, at the invitation of my collaborator, the amazing CP Butchvarov. I sent him some lines and suggestions yesterday. He may hate my suggestions, and he may hate the lines I sent also. That’s part of our process.
When I put myself in lyric-writing mode, I start to notice everything I see and hear. I’m watching for arresting images and I’m asking my mind to translate those to words and rhythms. At some point I start to write these down, and that begins a cascade, because the words I put on paper combine to become lines, and they generate more ideas. Then some line really catches my eye (ear), and from there on it’s a matter of building it up from the inside: making new lines to match the ones already made.
I found myself doing this a couple of nights ago, and it was late. I turned off the light and was curled up in bed, but as I tripped over into the sleep state, a pair of rhymed lines introduced themselves to me insistently. I flicked on the light long enough to scribble them down in my notebook. This happened three more times before I finally dropped off for good. Slept late the next morning.
I won’t tell you the lines but I’ll tell you later if CP thinks they’re garbage.
Anyone who writes fiction should read fiction. I’ve pushed back against that truth at various points in my life: reading takes time away from writing, or my writing style becomes spoiled by the author I’m reading. But it’s self-evident common sense. The only way to learn about fiction is to read it.
The attention economy puts constraints on the time available for fiction reading. We’ve got to keep up with social media, and we’ve got to make sure we get our news from more than one source, don’t we? How am I ever going to decide what to spend my limited time reading, of all the books that are shiny and new, and all the acclaimed stories that have ever been published?
That’s why I appreciate it when somebody I really respect tells me what to read. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders compiles seven stories by four nineteenth-century Russian authors (Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol). Based on twenty years of teaching these works to aspiring writers at Syracuse University, he follows each story with an essay analyzing what makes it work, and a series of “afterthoughts” that extend these lessons to the process of writing.
There’s no contemporary author I admire more than George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo (a novel, because “novel” is the only word broad enough to encompass everything that is swept up in this work) won the Man Booker award. His stories are published regularly in The New Yorker. They’re unfailingly deep and engrossing, fully imagined down to astonishing specifics.
I’m probably like many modern American readers in that I haven’t read much in the way of Russian writers or nineteenth-century literature. So to start, thank you to Saunders for exposing me to these seven stories. That said, the fun of the book for me was in the exploration and explication, and especially, in the indirect glimpses into Saunders’ own way of writing.
“Every element should be a little poem, freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story’s purpose,” he writes about the first Chekhov story. He lays out a method of writing that emphasizes revision, over and over, a relentless recursive examining of every word and phrase to make sure it belongs and it delights. The quality of Saunders’ writing proves the effectiveness of this intuitive but demanding process. I’m grateful to him for sharing these insights.
Contributed by Kayla King
Throughout the life of a book, there are moments meant for celebration. Many writers know these points well. There’s the seedling of an idea, those difficult days when we’re finally able to put words on the page, the finalization of a first draft, etc.
For Pages Penned in Pandemic: A Collective, the milestones were a bit different. There were the early submissions, sending the first acceptance, growing our platform, collecting all the accepted work into one document, finalizing the order of writing, the last two days of line edits, and of course, Publication Day! And these many moments were worth celebrating in different ways. However, organizing an evening filled with many of the family, friends, and authors who helped make this book a reality felt bigger than those other moments.
Perhaps this juxtaposition comes from the many months spent in isolation. Or maybe it was the culmination of all my worlds coexisting in my favorite local bookstore holding real copies of a book I created with my best friend. Whatever the reasons, this evening was special.
It must be said that the success of any published author can be accredited to local bookstores, which open their doors and their shelves. FITZ Books in downtown Buffalo, NY is one such place. Found by coincidence or kismet, this store and its owner, Aaron, hold a special place in the journey of this collective.
During the early days before we had a final cover or any real idea of page count, Aaron offered to let us use the space beside his bookstore for a small release. Everything was contingent on COVID-19 of course, but we realized this book would not exist without the pandemic, and kept our fingers crossed that this release party could happen one day. We remained hopeful that numbers would improve, that we would be able to bring together a small group of people to truly celebrate this book.
Leading up to January 29th, I did find myself absorbed in plans for the space: the antique typewriters from my own collection, posters of the front and back cover for the windows, and of course, print copies of the collective to sell at the release. It wasn’t until the night of the party when everything was done, starting the playlist crafted just for the event by two wonderful friends, fiddling with the vintage marcasite ring I wore for luck and my great-grandma King’s necklace chosen for a bit of love that I found myself ready to actually celebrate all we had accomplished.
Family arrived first. Friends arrived shortly thereafter. Being able to share this collective with the other local authors including J.S. Bowers, A.M. Kelly, and Christy Nolan was something I treasured. And having the opportunity to introduce my writing group, the Lock Keeper Six, to my work friends and my best friend really felt like a merging of worlds that not many people have the opportunity to experience.
My best friend made the trip from Brooklyn and we found ourselves in the somewhat strange position of answering questions about what we would do next, what project would fill our time now that this book was out in the world. We had answers, nothing quite substantial, though we do have ideas. But mostly, we were able to share our love of storytelling, the reason why we heralded this book into existence over the last few months.
We signed books and discussed the poems, stories, and essays we thought each person might enjoy most. As contributors ourselves, we were also able to discuss our own work in the collective, which we were thrilled to include among truly phenomenal writing. Among these poems, was one of my own entitled “Things to Leave on the Mantle, or Lies We Tell the Dark,” which is dedicated to my friend, Tina.
And we talked about isolation and creativity, about the people we were as young writers ourselves, and our hopes for those who might benefit from us donating our proceeds to 826 National. We talked about the pandemic now and what it might mean to future readers ten years from now when they pull this book from their shelves. It was all surreal and lovely.
At one point, I took a step back to observe. Perhaps this is the writer in me, searching for strands of conversations and imagining the stories that could take place in a similar world. It struck me, however, that these are the moments we celebrate. Or rather these are the moments we must celebrate because the days can be dark and the world may seem chaotic, but there are flashes of brightness that will flicker away in ephemeral escape if we’re not there to fully immerse ourselves within them.
And just like that, the night was nearly over. We sold out of the copies of books we brought, though more will be ready for purchase at FITZ Books soon! We packed up and started to make our way out before stopping to discuss stories with the store’s owner. Again, Aaron’s kindness and passion for books struck me. I, too, am a bibliophile, and chatting about narration styles and authenticity and what must be done to help the reader feel connected to the page was something I savored during the last few minutes spent in that space. For this, I am truly grateful.
Throughout my life, I have always thought of myself as a collector. I have my books and my typewriters and my antique teacups. I have journals, both empty and full, jars of seashells and boxes of movie stubs. Now I have this collection of work written during the pandemic. And I have phenomenal people who I’ve had the fortune to collect throughout my life. To them, I owe so much. And to my best friend and editor, I owe these moments of celebration. He continues to be a bright light in my universe, and I know my dreams are never too big as long as he is by my side.
To those near and far who have continued to champion this book over the last few months, please know you were in our thoughts throughout the evening. To the writers who trusted us with their words, please know, you, too, were there during the celebration of our book’s release.
As the editors, our work is done. Now it is up to you, dear readers, to continue stoking the flames of this once tiny spark of an idea. We hope you will share your favorite pieces from this collective with your friends and family. We hope those words keep you connected while the world continues on through uncertain times. We wish nothing more than for you to feel understood, if only for a few pages.
Pages Penned in Pandemic: A Collective is now available! Follow the link to find out how you can get your copy. It is available in print or as an ebook. To sweeten the deal, proceeds from the sale of Pages Penned in Pandemic will go to 826 National, a nonprofit that helps young writers. My contribution is a story titled “The Elves and the Shoe Designer,” and I’m thrilled to be part of this collective. Heartfelt thanks to editors Kayla King and Justin Maher, who managed this huge project beautifully. Watch my blog next week for a guest post from Kayla King!
“The Elves and the Shoe Designer” is a story that is auxiliary to my novel-in-progress, which is (currently) titled Wash Away. The story is not part of the novel, but without giving away any spoilers, a peripheral character in the novel features prominently in this story. It was helpful to me to write this side-item to learn more about one of my characters. (Yes, as a writer I learn about my characters by making up things about them in my imagination.)
The protagonist of Wash Away is named Zenna and she’s a chemist. Right from the start I realized how unfortunate it is that I did not ever develop any aptitude or interest in chemistry, and never learned anything about it past the eighth grade. I resolved to do something in a structured way to gain some chemistry knowledge and be able to use chemical terms correctly. So I read Chemistry for Dummies by John T. Moore, which is designed to accompany any college Chem 101 course.
I borrowed Chemistry for Dummies from the Buffalo-Erie Public Library using the Overdrive system to send the ebook to my Kindle. Not surprisingly, there was no waiting list for it. Everybody knows how to borrow books using Overdrive, right? Your public library is here to help you!
A handy thing I learned about Kindle is that you can highlight text in a book you’re reading, and your highlighted notes remain on the Kindle even after you return the book to the library. Even better, you can download the notes to your laptop and make it a real working file. (Search “download Kindle notes” if you don’t know how to do this.) My highlighted notes from Chemistry for Dummies became a tremendous vocabulary resource for me when I was writing scenes of Zenna in her lab.
As long as I’m writing Kindle love lines here, I’ve found that many people don’t know you can email a book to your Kindle. It accepts several file formats including doc and pdf. I’ve used it to proofread some of my friends’ unpublished manuscripts. Find your Kindle’s email address through your Amazon “Manage content and devices” page.
My final pro tip for Kindle users: go to Project Gutenberg to get classic works of literature that are no longer under copyright. The very first book I put on my Kindle was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This month I’ve been reading both Treasure Island and Frankenstein. One of those two titles is dull enough to put me to sleep. I’ll leave it a secret which one.
In 1915, my great-grandfather, George E. (Edmund) Bowers, purchased a weekly newspaper called The Alton Democrat. The paper remained in the Bowers family for about 56 years.
Alton is a town in Sioux County in northwest Iowa; its 2010 census count was 1,216. It is somewhat overshadowed by its more colorful neighbor, Orange City, home of the annual Tulip Festival.
The masthead of The Democrat contained a radiant rendering of Lady Liberty along with the motto “When tongue and pen alike are free, safe from all foes dwells liberty.”
My grandfather George E. (Emmet) Bowers and his sister, Mary L. Bowers, had active roles in operating the newspaper for most of their lives. Grandfather George (1893-1978) wrote a column for the paper for 60 years with the title “It Seems To Us.” His column ran under the pen name “Floyd River Philosopher” and whenever he referred to himself in the column, he used the abbreviation “FRPh.” The FRPh also wrote a crossword puzzle for the paper.
My first publication was a guest item in “It Seems To Us” of December 3, 1964, where I wrote a paragraph about the winter birds in Alton, including nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. Grandfather helpfully added that “Johnny is seven and in the second grade” and with some amount of pride noted that I typed my own copy.
I remember The Democrat’s office was an intimidating place full of heavy machinery, including a linotype machine, printing press, and folding machine. The newspaper archives, going back to the paper’s founding in 1885, were in bound volumes along one wall.
My uncle Frank Bowers took over publishing and editing the paper, along with his wife Jan, and in 1971 the Democrat was named Iowa Newspaper of the Year by the Iowa Press Association. Sadly, Jan didn’t stay, and ultimately Frank felt he had to sell the paper. He wrote about it in his “Our Views” column of October 26, 1972:
“When things looked bleakest, some of Orange City’s most important businessmen chose to rebel against our independent and irreverent treatment of what they regarded as ‘their’ community. After a tongue-in-cheek parody introducing new Northwestern college students to Orange City, the local furniture magnate withdrew all support.”
A depressing list followed, of other businesses who stopped advertising in the paper, and Frank’s column ended with the words “I’m sorry, grandfather.”
The Democrat continued under new ownership, but stopped publishing for good in 1982.
I love the title of Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want To Write, because it requires the reader make a spontaneous act of creativity to mentally finish the phrase. If you want to write… go ahead! If you want to write… write! If you want to write… what’s stopping you?
Ueland’s book was published in 1938. She was a writer who found herself leading creative writing classes for adults, often women. If You Want To Write is a treasure trove of sharp insights she learned helping her students over their own obstacles. She offers encouragement on every page, right from the very first words of chapter one: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something to say.”
This is not a book of advice about grammar or how to query agents. Instead it’s a sort of spell of enchantment about the power in self-expression, that starts with giving yourself permission and building a shell against criticism.
Here’s a creative exercise: For the next ten minutes, behave as if the universe is trying to communicate a secret lesson to you. Can you decode it? What are the patterns in the sky and the wind right now? Why did that song come on the radio at that exact instant? In these days when we are bombarded with messages all day from social media and news, it’s enlightening to look for indirect significance from the cosmos instead. This exercise is so effective in altering consciousness that it was cited as basic magic by Grant Morrison in his terrific essay Pop Magic.
One of Brenda Ueland’s nuggets of guidance is to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.” It’s advice that is not far from the habit of writing “morning pages,” which I wrote about here recently. If you’d like a little structure for your honest diary, I could recommend the daily exercises in the newly released book Dear Wellbeing… by my friend and colleague Susan Balogh.
And finally, not related to today’s blog post, but not to be missed: The international dance party for the coolest song in the world for 2020, The Weeklings’ “3.”
I’ve never advanced beyond the idea I first had when I was twelve, that being a music journalist would be the coolest job in the universe.
Even then, back when Rolling Stone was still on newsprint, I recognized the essential paradox of music reviewing: It is impossible to describe in words what a song sounds like. You can fling around your adjectives, you can label a genre, you can list the recording and production details. But you cannot tell a reader whether they will like a song or not.
I’m so glad, after all these years, to be able to point to a music column I love: “The Number Ones” by Tom Breihan at Stereogum.com. Mr. Breihan is writing brilliant reviews about every single #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 from its inception in 1955.
Accumulated years have provided music journalism something today that it didn’t have when I was twelve: history, context, memories. Writing about songs everybody knows brings music journalism into the realm of archival research, perfect for an old librarian like me. A number of music magazines/sites today are focused on recycling old information, re-reporting quotes from the past with new headlines.
“The Number Ones” transcends that. Mr. Breihan’s writing is incomparable. Online publication makes possible something print magazines could never offer: the chance for the reader listen to the song, and watch the video, at the same time they’re reading the article. This allows the writer to stop trying to explain music, and instead to delight in a role of accompanying it.
It turns out that there’s something magical about writing in chronology, and it’s this: The readers know what’s coming next and can plan their comments in advance. Stereogum has attracted an audience of readers who know their music. The comments section of “The Number Ones” is packed with would-be music journalists themselves, who take the column about the song at hand and explode it into something extraordinary that encompasses the whole universe.
When I was unemployed for a few months in 1986, I started to write a novel about a planet that only used music for religious purposes, and what happened when a scientist on that planet picked up radio waves from Earth from 1955. Now I have a column that reminds me of that experience. “The Number Ones” gives me the gift of discovering old music for the first time.