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.

 

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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“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

Two Writers Walk into a Bar

Writer 1:

I’ve been writing freelance ads while Rome is burning.

Writer 2:

Keep on playing’ the fiddle…

Writer 1:

Yes, sir.

Writer 2:

We’re looking more like ancient Rome than ever.

Writer 1:

Yes, we are.

Writer 2:

“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” Attributed to Mark Twain, but who knows.

Writer 1:

We may extinct ourselves before we’re able to destroy our governments. So that would be something we haven’t done before. I’m so cynical.

Writer 2:

I’m trying to resist becoming cynical, but that just makes me angry at myself. I want to write words that burn peoples’ eyes.

Writer 1:

Yes. I need to get myself together to write about it all. I feel helpless. As though my voice doesn’t matter. But that’s not right, right?  We have to resist. We have to fight. However we can. If that’s then pen, then that’s what we have.

Writer 2:

The pen is the first choice.

Writer 1:

Wonder where the best place to live would be while our Republic falls.

Writer 2:

It might not be all bad. Rome eventually became the capitol of one of the great western European states. Of course…they had to endure the Dark Ages first.

Writer 1:

I mean, where can we get clean water, access to food, and be physically safe? Christ, I sound like a right-wing doomsday prepper from when Obama was elected.

Writer 2:

That’s a shift. Now it’s us progressive-thinkers considering digging backyard bunkers.

Writer 1:

All the wackos got from worrying about Obama was free health care and a stable economy and low gas prices and low unemployment. Haha! We are so screwed.

Writer 2:

We’ll go down writing. Some of us may go down fighting.

Writer 1:

Maybe love will prevail? Maybe we’ll get through it without the destruction of the whole country?

Writer 2:

Let’s hope, but also work for it. What I’m most afraid of is that good people lose hope and completely withdraw from participation in the process.

Writer 1:

It’s easier to step out of the fray.

Writer 2:

I wonder if Democrats will bother to vote at all in the next election…if there is a next election.

Writer 1:

Most people over 55 will be silent.

Writer 2:

That’s the trouble with the left — in general, they’re soft and sensitive. In other words, “snowflakes.” The right is tough, mean, and organized. And they don’t care if they have to crack heads to make their version of progress. The law of the jungle doesn’t work in favor of compassionate thinking.

Writer 1:

What do we do? Run for school board? I mean, seriously. I’m not a politician. Do we really have to become political writers? That feels out of my league. Then again, if an ignorant reality TV celebrity can be president of the United States, nothing’s out of anyone’s league.

Writer 2:

People have to want civilization.

Writer 1:

I want a peaceful society. Not a warring, angry one.

Writer 2:

I want the same, but wars don’t care what people want. Societies have a will of their own that’s completely separate from the desires of individuals.

Writer 1:

Keep your head and arms inside the vehicle, and enjoy the ride.

Writer 2:

But if we lean to the left or right just a bit, without falling out of the car, maybe we can influence it just enough to keep it from flying off the rails.

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Six Weeks with the Astrohaus Freewrite

I’ve now had my Freewrite for about six weeks. I’ve avoided writing a review until I had time to absorb all that this gadget is and does. Since it arrived, I’ve written about 5,000 words on it, so I’ve now had time to form some opinions.

Yes, it’s expensive. That’s why I dithered around for several months despite lusting after the device from the days of the Hemingwrite Kickstarter campaign.

At this point, it’s a simple matter to list pros and cons. The cons are few, so I’ll offer them first. There are three.

Con #1: I’m a bit embarrassed to mention the expense of the Freewrite because I’m not a wealthy man, and people I know may judge me for having bought one. But that’s neither here nor there. So, onward.
Ok, Astrohaus. I get it that a Cherry MX brown keyboard is worth at least $100, and I’ll give you another hundred for the bitchin’ aluminum case, and another hundred for the guts of the thing, which seem to me about the equivalent of an Amazon Kindle. So, $300-350 seems reasonable to me. $500 isn’t, and aside from weirdos like me who are willing to spend a lot on something because it’s beautiful (And the Freewrite is.), I don’t see you folks selling a lot of these things for half a grand apiece, plus another $30 for shipping within the United States.

Con #2*: You may think I’m going to mention the lack of arrow keys, but I’m not. Con #2, for me, is that Freewrite doesn’t dump my shitty first drafts directly into the word processor of my choice. Instead, text must be copied from Postbox , the Astrohaus cloud service, and pasted into a separate application such as Word or Scrivener. Mind you, this isn’t a big deal. But…why? Take the extra step, Astrohaus, of integrating the software into popular word processing applications. Why force the cut-and-paste drill? Give us a better option.

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Con #3: Battery life and charging level indicator. The battery life isn’t great. My Kindle Paperwhite’s battery can last for weeks with the Wi-Fi on. Why shouldn’t the Freewrite’s battery last as long? There’s a lot of space inside this gadget for a bigger battery, so I suppose weight was a consideration, but couldn’t a software update eke a few more hours out of my battery?

I’d also like the ability to monitor the charge level. As it is, the device issues the warning, “Low battery. Please plug in charger.” I have no clue at this point how much operating time may remain. A minute? Another hour? It would be helpful to see a standard battery graph or charge percentage displayed, perhaps as one of the “special” key options to keep it out of sight until needed.

The pros are many. By far, the best thing about the Freewrite is the Cherry MX keyboard. It’s the best thing I’ve ever typed on, and I’m addicted to the sound and feel of it. I love it so much that I recently replaced my Apple keyboard, which I’ve always enjoyed using, with a Rosewill Cherry MX brown mechanical keyboard, because I want to have the same tactile experience while editing that I get while hammering out a draft on the Freewrite. The Freewrite’s keyboard has ruined me, and I expect to use mechanical keyboards for the rest of my life. This discovery alone, and the improvement in the experience of typing, makes the purchase worthwhile.

This thing is, as I’ve mentioned, a beautiful device. The retro look, combined with the sturdy (4 pounds) aluminum case, make it an instant conversation piece, which may be a good thing, or not. In my case, maybe ironically, an old Alphasmart Neo case when I’m carrying the Freewrite in public to avoid such attention. I don’t sit around in coffee shops with this thing, though if that’s where one writes, so be it. (It’s a bit flashy for me, and the keyboard might be noisy enough to irritate certain people.) Anyway, I like how it looks on my desk when I’m not using it.

Overall, the acquisition of a Freewrite has been a boon to my writing life, and if I accidentally dropped the thing into the bay today, I’d order another immediately.

*The inability to stop and edit is integral to the concept of the Freewrite, and it works. I’ve just about doubled my daily word count using this clunky, gorgeous monstrosity, and I’m thrilled. If I were constantly going back to edit myself, as I’ve had the bad habit of doing for so very long, I’d still be trundling along at the glacial pace at which I’ve always worked. This device enforces a damn-the-torpedoes approach that has increased my word count and the inability to delete ideas as I type them. It’s all there to edit later, and some of the  ideas I would otherwise delete have turned out to be keepers.

20 January 2017 Update:

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Adam from Astrohaus responded to this post on January 18th with the following thoughtful message. It addresses everything except the battery life, and he’s right. I may just love the Freewrite more now. I do hope Astrohaus can do something about the power management. Meanwhile, I’ll keep the power cable handy. Thanks, Adam.

Hey Steven!

From the review you just published, it sounds like you are loving the Freewrite! That’s awesome. But I may be able to get you to like it even more :)

Con 2 mentions that you have to copy and paste. May I suggest that you use Dropbox? It’s free and works extremely well. You will also find that once you connect it and have it running on your computer, there will be native word documents saved directly into the dropbox folder, i.e. no more copy and pasting. You can go from writing on the Freewrite to opening a docx file on your computer! You should also look into markdown formatting because it is an ultra simple way to get basic formatting into your document. http://support.getfreewrite.com/article/42-using-markdown-syntax-on-your-freewrite.

Regarding con 3, hold the spacebar to show the battery indicator (and alternate keyboard layout if you are using one). We don’t put this on the console screen because we don’t want people fixated on the battery life. Admittedly, we have still have work to do to optimize the power management.

Hope this helps!!


Adam
hello@astrohaus.com

My Take on Veterans Day

“In the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight”
― Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August

America, where only one percent of the population has served in the armed forces, is sufficiently detached from the daily experience of war service members endure that I suspect most people can live weeks or months without considering the hardships and sacrifice of service members and their families.

Veterans Day has its roots in the deep grief that followed World War I — the “War to End All Wars,” as it was called in a more innocent time. In the bright light of over a century of hindsight, it’s easy to criticize the naïveté of leaders who hadn’t yet learned that technology always evolves more quickly than the tactics and policy used to manage it.

We, and the technology we wield today, are no different. The future will judge us harshly unless we learn to count the cost of war in lives, not dollars or barrels of oil. Veterans Day serves as an annual reminder of the human price of war, and that we’re never as prepared as we think we are to start a new one.

 

Crazy Talk

The acrid smell of ammunition propellant wafts through my mind every now and then. Not the memory, but the actual smell. Now, for example, sitting at my desk in a corporate office for no apparent reason, I smell it clearly. Slightly sweet and alarming.
Another smell that sometimes insinuates itself is weathered cotton duck canvas. Also diesel exhaust. And aviation hydraulic fluid. These are some of the more pleasant smells. There are others–burning or decaying things–that don’t bear mentioning.
The better smells that haunt me remind me of early, frigid mornings on rifle ranges, of distant desert afternoons under a blazing Asian sun, parachute drops, and dusty convoys. The smell comes first, then the memories fill in around it.
I can only explain it as synesthesia caused by some nearby stimulus. All I know to do with decades of memories no one around me can possibly understand is to write about them, one sight, one smell at a time, as they occur to me. For a long time, I’ve pushed these things to the back of my mind, thinking it’s not normal to have these memories invade my present, that people will think I’m crazy if I talk about them. The more time that passes, the less I care about that sort of thing.
Is it like that when we die? Do all the sights, sounds, and smells we’ve ever experienced return to us at once? I hope so.