Love and Rockets

kaf-38.jpgWhile working on a longer story that included my memory of a rocket attack on a  U.S. Army forward operating base in Afghanistan, I got stuck on some details. To get past it, I tried to put myself in the boots of a young soldier working on the FOB, one who didn’t particularly care how the war turned out–one who simply wanted to go home and recover his abandoned life. I ended up with a piece of flash fiction, something I’ve never tried before. Thanks to Every Day Fiction for publishing the result.

 

 

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VCCA Update

The snow has mostly melted away here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The winter storm that made the drive from Kentucky to Virginia such an icy, salty adventure blanketed the area in a layer of ice. A couple fellows are nursing bruises after slipping and falling on the way to their studio spaces last week, and I nearly bit the ice myself early yesterday.

Today is a day to prepare for the coming week of intense work. It’s my fourth full day at the residency, and I’m only now feeling settled into a routine.

I’ve been tweaking a story I wrote a couple years ago and put away in disgust when I discovered that the movie Passengers was essentially the same story, only with movie stars and a robot barman. I pulled it out of the trunk last week and spent a couple days experimenting with different character points of view, only to reach the conclusion that it’s dead. So, onward with a new idea.

Last night after dinner, a dozen or so fellows spent time in the library talking about our work, and the breadth of knowledge and experience in the room was humbling. Visual artists, music composers, and writers, all in a room together with a bottle of bourbon, is a recipe for great conversation. After midnight, it was down to two other writers and myself. We have our craft in common, but come from different backgrounds–a Jew, a Catholic, and a Protestant. One from the Netherlands, one from Texas, and one from Florida. Each of us stretched our perception to understand the different experience of the others, and I believe we’ve become friends. I can’t wait to read their work.

So…imposter syndrome. I suffer from it. I mean, I’m not sure how I’m even here with these tremendously talented people. Then I remember that it’s because someone thought my work was worthwhile. I look at the badge attached to the keys fellows are issued here, and beneath my name is the word “Writer.” So, not only must I make myself worthy of this opportunity by working my ass off in the quiet, perfect writing studio provided for my use, I must learn to think of myself not as an old soldier who dabbles in fiction, but as a writer. If we don’t learn to believe in our own talent, why should anyone else? This is my chance to prove that I can do this.

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Postcard on the Wall of the VCCA Library Telephone Closet

My goal here is to make significant progress toward a short story collection, for which I hope to find a publisher in the near future. I’ll try to post updates for anyone who’s interested, but mostly for my own benefit and the feeling of accountability for this precious time to write without interference from the real world.

And now, it’s time to get back to work.

Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Residency

I’m pretty excited about this, so I’ll share it here. A couple months ago, I applied for a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). I suffer from chronic imposter syndrome as a writer, so it felt like a shot in the dark. My submission included the short story “The Grove,” which Jacksonville’s wonderful Bridge Eight Literary Magazine published a couple years ago, and a 500-word story about surviving a rocket attack in Afghanistan. To my amazement, I received an email from the VCCA Deputy Director on Thursday notifying me that I’ve been scheduled for a mid-January residency.

Here’s a bit from Deputy Director Sheila Gulley Pleasants’ email:

VCCA’s mission is to provide a creative space in which our best national and international artists (you!) produce their finest work. We take our mission very seriously, but we also know that some Fellows are interested in sharing their work, and we at VCCA are interested in promoting the arts in general and the work of our Fellows in particular.
If this is of interest to you, there are a number of opportunities for you to share your work in the local community.  These opportunities include meeting with students and faculty at Sweet Briar College, presenting work at community centers and art galleries, and opening your studio to visiting groups here at VCCA.
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VCCA Corn Crib (Writers’ Studio) Photo by

VCCA furnishes artists with a private studio, a private bedroom with semi-private bath, and three prepared meals each day.  There are 25 writers, composers, and visual artists in residence at any given time, and I can’t imagine a better environment for focus and concentration than their beautiful campus, quite possibly blanketed in snow. (Florida Man will be digging out some long-dormant clothing layers for this trip.)

For the next few weeks, I’ll develop a personal regimen to make the most of precious residency time, and I’ll probably spend way too much time making a packing list. I think I’ll bring a guitar. Definitely a camera and sketchpad.
I hope to not only get a lot of serious work done, but to meet interesting people and, if I’m extremely lucky, make a few friends.
So…wow. I’m humbled and grateful, and this is going to be fun.

 

NaNoWriMo: I’m In.

In past years, I’ve watched National Novel Writing Month pass by like Amtrak at an at a railroad crossing. I’ve always thought, even if I could crank out the word count, it would be garbage, right? I couldn’t imagine a writer worth his ink believing anything worthwhile could come of it and secretly judged the nerds who do. Well, it turns out that a few of those “nerds” are kind of a big deal.

About halfway through October, I realized I was in the perfect position to give NaNoWriMo a shot. For the past three weeks or so, I’ve solidified characters, setting, and produced a basic outline from start to finish. This is a novel I started in 2008, but dropped in the trunk when it didn’t seem to be working. It seems to me now that, with all the ingredients laid out before me, I might be able to cook this thing up into something tasty. The worst that can happen is that I’ll end up with a horrible first draft to refine into a second.

So, I’m committed and surprised to discover that I’m pretty excited about it. (I suspect that’ll wear off by about day 3.) The thing is, I don’t actually know what I’m capable of. What if I can produce 80,000 words in a month? I’m wary of the possibility that after so much sustained effort, I could be oblivious to the wrongness of the thing I have made. Luckily, my lovely wife, Susan, a finer writer than I’ll ever be, wants to read my work. Having a dedicated reader who loves you enough to provide honest feedback is priceless.

Earlier this year, having been let go as content manager from a soulless snake oil company in Tampa, I spent a lot of time and effort searching for another position. I had a bit of freelance work coming in, along with a military pension, but I felt responsible for doing more for our family. After a couple months of job hunting, I’d found nothing and started to wonder what was wrong with me. Is it my age? Are people afraid I have PTSD? Is my resume all wrong? Susan convinced me to stop looking and do what I’ve always wanted, to write full time. Yes, she’s wonderful. Yes, I’m grateful.

Even now, a nasty little internal editor sits on my shoulder as I write, criticizing each idea, every word. Perhaps running this 50,000 word marathon will wear that little bastard out enough to allow me to get something true on the page.

Terry Prachett is credited with saying “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” while Hemingway reportedly wrote in a letter to Arnold Samuelson, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Either way, I’m in.

What to Protect during a Hurricane? Books.

GreenBoxThanks to all who kept us in their prayers and sent good thoughts our way during Hurricane Irma. We’re fortunate beyond our hopes, and grateful for so many reasons. Those we love are safe, our home is undamaged, and it appears we’re the only house in the neighborhood whose lights never went out. We’re so grateful.

Check out Susan‘s post about our stormy night HERE, or click on the photo.

Rambling Thoughts on Running and Objects Seen Beside the Road

IMG_2495Every couple of days, I pull on a pair of shoes and go out for a run. It’s prime thinking and reflecting time, and I credit it for having kept me sane through some hard moments over the years. Running was once a mandatory part of daily life as a soldier. I didn’t have to like it. I only had to do it. My father-in-law, an Army veteran, used to say, “PT might not make you live longer, but it sure makes it feel longer.”

After a couple years of military service, I made peace with the necessity of daily running. A year or later, once I reached a place in my career when responsibilities sometimes precluded exercise, I found that I missed the feeling of my feet in contact with the road or the bare ground. I missed the rhythm of breathing and heartbeat and cadence that had become the background to a cherished interval of personal time each morning. When there was no available time during the day, or when I couldn’t sleep, I sometimes ran late at night.

When I retired from service, I spent about a week doing nothing more strenuous than grilling steaks and drinking cold beer. One morning, before my eyes opened, I saw myself running. I heard the sound of my steps and felt the humidity on my face. I got out of bed. I put on my shoes. I found that the ritual of donning shoes used only for running put me in the proper mindset to push my body toward its limits. I didn’t have to run anymore. No one was ever going to subject me to an Army physical fitness test again. I just wanted to run. Now that my body is noticeably aging, I understand that it’s the mental state running induces that I crave.

Funny thing–on military installations, there is no litter. We police that stuff up every day. Mostly what soldiers see while running is the back of the soldier running in front of them. Grey cotton, damp after the first mile, stained dark by mile two. Saturated in the North Carolina heat by the time the sun rises. Soldiers are trained to notice roadside debris. Improvised explosive devices are often disguised as bags of trash, discarded auto parts, dead animals–anything boring or repulsive. Soldiers can’t run down a road without mentally sorting every object they pass. The training doesn’t allow it. Running in the “real world,” outside a litter-free military installation, becomes a tour of objects, each with its own story.

I don’t mean to imply the streets are blanketed in litter. It’s the occasional thing on the side of the road I’m talking about.

There’s a sort of hierarchy of objects. There’s the 16-oz Natural Light beer can and the tiny airport tequila bottle. I live in the suburbs for now, so I imagine these are the detritus of reckless high school kids, or their parents making one last orbit around the neighborhood before pulling into the driveway. Where have they been? What happens when they step inside the house?

There’s the single white tennis shoe. It looks fine, as though someone slipped it off a moment before, yet there it is in the median with the stray bolts, bottle caps, and broken sunglasses. I imagine someone hit by a truck hard enough to pop right out of that shoe. Maybe they’re still attached to the grill, clinging for dear life. Single flip-flops abound. I once encountered a black, patent leather man’s dress shoe with a mirror shine. Somewhere, a hapless groom limps to the altar on one shoe. I wonder why it’s always male footwear. Somebody answer me that.

The other day, I found the abandoned driver license of a young man named Baumgartner. It hadn’t expired, and I imagined a man who had changed his identity, emptying his wallet from the passenger seat of the get-away car driven by his attractive and dangerous lover. Had he abandoned a family, a job?

I stuck the license in the top of a bus stop sign in front of the YMCA. Maybe he’d pass by again, a runner like me, and find it. Or maybe a better runner than I, farther down the road, can recover a the spare house key, the mini-Polaroid of the cute dog, and make something of the former Mr. Baumgartner’s shed skin.

A Typical Morning

The wake-up alarm I’ve chosen for my phone is the sound of various bird songs, as though in the forest. There’s a bird call on the phone that sounds identical to a species of bird I hear each morning outside my bedroom window. Sometimes I hear the live bird before my alarm goes off, and I think it’s the alarm. I open my eyes and realize it’s the bird outside in the tree, not the one in my phone, and I try to go back to sleep. Sometimes I can. Other times my mind starts to work on things. It starts to work on problems and tasks and events coming up. I lie in bed thinking, taking advantage of the time before full wakefulness when it feels like I’m made of mind only and can think without distractions. It’s the only time of day when that’s possible.

The dog hears the alarm and knows what it means and leaps onto the bed. If I don’t protect myself, he’ll lick my face and stomp all over me. I grab him and hug him, and he wags his tail. Most dogs would just as soon avoid being hugged by a human, but he likes it. I ask him if he wants to go outside, and he flies off the bed, crouches, wags, and waits for me to go out and open the back door. Then he launches himself on a high-speed yard patrol, in case a cat or a squirrel has infiltrated.

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While the dog is tearing through the yard making his 45 pounds sound like a charging rhinoceros, I like to put my fingers on the keyboard and see what they do. I keep a Freewrite on the tall breakfast table, so I can go to it right out of bed, before my brain is fully awake. Look–I’m doing that now, looking into a literary mirror.

The nights are sometimes long and difficult. Everything is better when the sun is up and I’m moving again. The dog is no conversationalist, but he’s my friend, and he never says anything foolish or ignorant. His points of view are well known to me on a wide range of subjects, many of which I agree with. Raw carrots are tasty. A quick run through the neighborhood in the morning before the sun rises above the treetops is good. Walking in the evening is good. Yowling cats in heat on the fence outside the window at night are bad.

He and I disagree on minor points such as how one should behave in the presence of another dog’s excrement, whether it’s alright to hang one’s entire body out the window of a moving automobile, and the degree of sexual attractiveness of the human leg.

Each morning, by 8:30am, a murder of crows has occupied the top of the pine tree. They drop things into the yard. Chicken bones, egg shells, aluminum foil. The dog is interested, but seems to smell crow on these things and doesn’t try to eat them. The crows’ calls are less pleasant than the bird songs I hear before daybreak. They seem to be arguing among themselves or taunting the dog and me. I stand on the back patio, watching them watch me. I sip coffee. They turn their heads sideways and direct one shiny black eye on me at a time, as though their left eye provides one type of information, and the right another. Infrared, perhaps. I am slightly fascinated by crows, but I don’t imagine that they’re my friends. If I lie still long enough, I know one of them will eventually try to take one of my eyes.

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A Return to the Center

If your eyes are open to beauty and meaning, you’ll find them.

susan ishmael

In the hot, waning days of summer 2016, I visited the Abbey of Gethsemani  in Trappist, Kentucky to walk the grounds with a friend. The world felt at peace, and my friend and I–both writers, both recently divorced, both mothers, both spiritual seekers–had some important catching up to do: after both of our decades-long marriages ended abruptly and painfully, we’d each found and been startled by new love.

It was a sweltering August day, not unlike my first visit to the abbey almost a decade prior. I wore a cotton tee shirt dress and she wore an old shirt and hiking pants. I had a stainless steel canteen of water and she carried a Diet Coke. We walked together and talked about our lives and our novels (hers, published, mine, not) and our failures and our joys.

We soon found ourselves at a place that historically has been forbidden to women at Gethsemani:…

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“Human”

While applying for a marriage certificate in Lexington, Susan and I were asked to identify our race. We agreed we’re tired of that question on every government form everywhere, so we entered the word “Human.” The clerk was not having it and insisted that we properly categorize ourselves by skin color. We complied, yet it felt right to push back, just a bit, and peacefully, against an anachronistic regulation. If and when the government asks me to declare my religion, I’ll enter the word “Liberty.”Screenshot 2017-03-11 08.48.54.png