Complaint Of the Novelist Pig

As an aspiring novelist, I like to read about other writers and how they found success. But in books and magazine that write this sort of swill, I often find an implied assumption that an aspiring writer will, as a matter of course, enter an Master of Fine Arts program to get his or her graduate degree in Creative Writing.

Since I have no intention of embarking on such a course — how long would a talking pig last in a creative writing class? — I thought I would defend my intention by finding out how my favorite writers got their start and how many of them had MFA’s.

Danny Meadow Mouse and HootyI think I’ll attempt this in chronological order, beginning with the first writer who made an indelible impression on my life. I was five years old. The writer was Thornton W. Burgess, author of about a million animal stories for small children. I’m willing to assume that, in addition to creative writing, he studied wildlife management and child psychology too. I know he was pretty successful at what he did. In fact, while I was still in kindergarten, I taught myself to read so that I could devour more and more of his tales of the animals of the Smiling Pond and the Green Meadows. His characters acted like real animals except they talked to each other and had to solve little moral dilemmas that I could understand. When Hooty the Owl caught Danny Meadow Mouse and lifted him up over the snowy fields in the moonlight, I was, not exactly terrified, but unbearably excited to see what would happen next. One thing I knew for sure: Danny would escape. Thornton Burgess’ animal world was that kind of world. And that was just the way I liked it. Burgess wrote over seventy of those little books and I wanted to devour every one.

OK,let’s see what Thornton’s credentials are…hmm,what’s this? According to American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, after high school he went to business college for a year to try learn accounting. Didn’t like it, and quit. Got a job in a shoe store. That’s it. That’s his entire advanced education! What gives here?

When he was twenty-one, he snagged a job as janitor/office boy at a publishing company. The publishing company put out magazines for farmers. Burgess didn’t know anything about farming, but he knew the editor, so he tried submitting a few little pieces. One thing led to another. He became a part-time, then a full-time reporter. He learned by doing! Found out what worked by bashing away at it day after day.

eye of needleWell, that was a long time ago. Let’s pick somebody more current. How about, Ken Follett, the thriller writer? His stuff doesn’t thrill me with delight, but neither do I despise it. I’ve read my share of Ken Follett thrillers and enjoyed every one. And, since he’s one of the most successful writers out there, so let’s see where he got his MFA in Creative Writing.

Well, according to British Mystery and Thriller Writers Since 1940: First Series, Follett went to University College in London, where he took his degree in… philosophy. Philosophy? Well, he probably wanted to get his moral bearings in an ambiguous universe so his characters could agonize more about their despicable deeds, after he finished his advanced writing degree, right?

Actually, he went home to Wales and snagged a job for the South Wales Echo, writing their rock music column for three years. Then he became a crime reporter and started writing thrillers on the side. If he ever took a writing class, there is no record of it. Just kept bashing away to see what worked.

I know, you’re probably saying Pig, you’re only picking writers that you know never went to graduate school. What about those high-toned guys who write literary fiction? The kind that critics like and wins awards? They must have MFAs!

Listen, don’t get me started on critics. I wish they would all go shoot themselves.

Listen to what The Oxford Companion To Children’s Literature says about Thornton W. Burgess stuff, the man who opened the wide world of books to me forever: “an undistinguished mishmash in imitation of The Wind In the Willows…Beatrix Potter…and Uncle Remus, but (sniff) very popular in his time.” And please don’t mention that undistinguished name in my critical presence again. Hmmpf.

Frankly, I find it hard to open a novel that promises long pages of careful introspection and Scandanavian angst. A novel about a husband and wife not discussing their marital problems for 300 pages in their middle class kitchen in Connecticut only gets interesting to me when pirates suddenly leap through the kitchen window, kidnap the wife, and the husband has to rescue her before it’s too late! But that mostly doesn’t happen.

240x240_bio_percyHowever, there is one literary writer I actually enjoy. He was a Southerner by the name of Walker Percy.  I’ve read two of his novels and they both were about alienated Southerners walking around the South not thinking about things.  But, for some funny reason, I really like the guy’s work and want to read more.   So let’s look him up.

Ah, Walker Percy. Went to college back in the thirties where he studied…chemistry. He eventually became a pathologist, and while autopsying tubercular corpses, contracted TB himself. Through his long sanatorium convalescence he started reading — French and Russian literature, philosophy, psychology, anything to keep his mind going. Made him start wondering about things. How come if science is so great, men and women tend to be so unhappy and confused? And lead such shallow lives?

So he recovers, but doesn’t want to be a pathologist anymore. He decides to try writing books about this dilemma that has become real to him. Quits his job, moves back to Louisiana, lives off an inheritance from a relative, and starts bashing away to see what works. His third novel, The Moviegoer, wins the National Book Award. So he never set out to write literary fiction. He set out to use fiction to solve the problem that gnawed at him.

I am not totally convinced that going to graduate school is the best way to learn anything in the creative line. Has jazz noticeably improved since musicians started getting degrees in it? Actually, no. It’s gotten more boring.  Today, jazz lovers are still listening to the guys like John Colrane and Miles Davis who learned from bashing away in the clubs ever night.

What about movies? What film school did Francois Trauffaut or Frederico Fellini go to? I think it was called the school of life. They learned their trade by making movies all day. Did that school close down? It turned some pretty good guys.

So, in conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I think I’ll just sit here and bash away until I finally figure out what works.


Odetta Done Gone


Odetta died in New York City on Tuesday.  That big, rich, powerful voice will thrill us live no more.  She was a mighty rod and an inspiration.  She could turn simple words into an epic declaration of insufferable injustice and give us some spirit to fight it. She made me want to sing the big kind of folk music.  May sweet Jesus ease her passage.  Her like won’t be seen again.

Another man done gone
Another man done gone
Another man done gone
From the country farm
Another man done gone.

He had a long chain on
He had a long chain on
He had a long chain on
From the country farm
Another man done gone.

I didn’t know his name
I didn’t know his name
I didn’t know his name
They did him just the same
Another man done gone.

Here’s the link to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times:

Odetta Holmes dies at 77; folk singer championed black history, civil rights

Thanks to If Charlie Parker was a Gunslinger, Ther’d Be A Whole Lot of Dead Copycats for the heads up and photo.

My Charlie Chaplin Film Festival

I had to go to my doctor.

“Doc”, I said, “Something’s wrong with me. I never laugh at comedies any more. I just sit there.”

“Tell me your symptoms, son”, he said. “Well, for instance I saw this movie called Meet the Fockers or Meet the Parents or something like that. People all around me were laughing but it made me hurt so bad inside I had to leave the theater. The characters were so cruel to each other.”

“Hmmm,” says he, “anything else?

“Well, fart jokes don’t make me laugh. Like in Shrek, which was supposed to be so funny. Seemed like the high point was when the ogres farted. I just sat there and waited for it to be over. What’s wrong with me?”.

The doctor ran some tests and fiddled with his electrometer for a while. Finally, he said, “Well, you might try Charlie Chaplin.”

“???????,” I thought, like they do in comic strips.

I said, “You mean the great silent film monolith that every film lover bows to but nobody watches? You mean those silly Keystone cops movies all scratchy and speeded up? That sounds like a duty, not a pleasure.”

“Hey, I’m the doctor,” he said, “And one more thing. That will be $280.00 please.”

Since his advice cost so much, I figured I’d at least try it, so I went down to my local library and checked out The Gold Rush, Chaplin’s 1925 hit starring a bunch of people I’d never heard of, like Mack Swain and Georgia Hale. Actually, I had to special order it from the big library downtown.

But, I have to tell you, within one minute, as soon as the bear fell into line behind the Little Fellow as he danced along the precipice path, I started laughing uncontrollably. And I really didn’t stop for the next 95 minutes. I fell off the couch. I hurt my bottom. Even my cat was laughing. People started peering in through the front window to see what was going on. Then they started laughing too so I had to let them in. I mean it was snowing outside. Patrushka had to get up and make popcorn. And we all watched it over and over all night, screeching with joy.

The Gold Rush is so funny, and so sweet, and so endearing, and the DVD is so clear and crisp. I couldn’t bear to leave. I had to stay and watch it over even though I was in my own living room and everybody finally went home.

Next day I called my doctor, “Doc, I’m cured! It turns out there’s nothing wrong with my sense of humor at all. It’s just that the movies they’re making now are so stupid!”

So I started holding my own private Charlie Chaplin Film Festival/Block Party. We watched Modern Times which I immediately had to watch again and it was even better the second time as I got into the rhythm of it, and I have The Great Dictator ready to go for our next movie night. All from the the Spokane Public Library, which I hereby thank for providing my medicine free of charge.

Hooray for Charlie Chaplin! Finally, I’m laughing again at something besides my own thoughts.

In 1969 Jack Kerouac died…

Here’s a little poem left over from my mid-life crisis. Now that I’m up to my Medicare crisis I don’t need it any more. ..

In 1969,

Jack Kerouac died.

It was an ignominious death,

he puked his guts into a toilet,

moaned to Ste. Therese,

and left his mother to carry on.

After all those miles.

In 1969,

Some outlaws of art were still young –

rock desperadoes,

poets of armed robbery,

exiles on main street

But Neal Cassady was dead already

and John Lennon was fixin to die.

They met their rightful destiny.

But what happens to the outlaws who go free?

Whose sun-bleached hair grows grey?

Who have to walk the seacoast in a mothbitten overcoat

or raise a family?

What happens to bad mothers who don’t get shot?

when their time runs out and they’re still here?

There’s all those days to fill when the Muse won’t show – –

watering the geraniums

or teaching English to high-school gunmen

with slower draws than they had.

With sleeping in their cars,

answering the phone at the Institute for Parapsychology,

seeing their kids grow up,

looking into soft dead eyes forever in their dream.

Photo by Patrushka

Red Cloud, Willa Cather…and Jack Kerouac.

This is Red Cloud, Nebraska, the little praire town where novelist Willa Cather grew up, and where she set many of her best stories. In those days, at the turn of the twentieth century, Red Cloud was happening. A big railroad hub for the Burlington line, eight passenger trains a day disgorged easterners going west, westerners heading east, vaudeville troupes and professors, cowboys and clowns and Shakespearean actors ready to do two nights at the opera house. The town fed and housed them as they waited to change trains. A wide-awake kid could learn a lot about life here.

Today, the railroad has gone away and Red Cloud supports three industries that I can see – a big feedlot on the edge of town which you can smell when the wind is right, a smallish grain elevator….and Willa Cather. She is the Colossus of Red Cloud, and the engine that lifted this little Nebraska town out of the ranks of hundreds and into eternity.

I wonder what those 1890s townsfolk would have thought if they had known that little kid with the short hair and the eternal questions and the dramatic flair was going to write down (and transmute) their gossip, crimes, sins and love affairs and toothaches and gardens into stories so vivid and pure that those ordinary folks would be given a sort of immortality on this earth. Scholars were going to scour the town’s attics for their letters and journals – for any clue to help them understand how Willa changed them and rearranged them to create her immortal characters.

Take Annie Pavelka, for instance. She was an unschooled Czech immigrant girl whose father killed himself out on the prairie one Christmas day. Her older brother decided they had to hire her out into town as a servant girl, and she went to work for the Miner family who lived on the next block over from the Cathers. Willa got to know Annie and they became friends when they were both teenagers. And Annie transmuted into Antonia of My Antonia. Which is, in my humble piggish opinion, the best novel you will ever read about the American pioneer experience and is probably the best novel ever written about anything. (hyperbole warning) And it’s about what happened to the kid on the next block over.

Today the Willa Cather foundation owns the tiny Catholic Church where Annie’s “illegitimate” baby was baptized. The local Catholics moved to bigger quarters generations ago and the little church became somebody’s house for more generations. In the normal American course of things it would have been torn down forty years ago. But the church of St. Juliana Falconteri is Red Cloud gold. It’s one of the reasons this little lost prairie town with the feed lot hosts scholars from all over the world as they come to research at the Willa Cather archives. And why the Cather’s Retreat bed and breakfast on Seward Street is full most nights.

Offhand, I can think of two other little nowhere towns that became somewhere towns because a novelist grew up there. First, Jack Kerouac’s Lowell, Massachusetts. Second, D.H. Lawrence’s Eastwood, Nottinghamshire.

Kerouac’s work hovers out there somewhere all by himself, not quite memoirs, but not ordinary novels either. He has more in common with Walt Whitman than with Willa Cather. But his stories of Lowell in the Twenties and Thirties just nail that town.

Lawrence’s Eastwood, though, is a pretty exact parallel. Used to be a coal mining town till the coal mines closed down. Now, I guess, it’s a suburb of Nottingham. When I was there in the Seventies it was depressed and still looked very much like Lawrence describes it in Sons and Lovers and a lot of other books. Like Cather’s, his babyhood home was owned by a foundation and set up to look like it must have looked in the 1890s. But the foundation was composed of local enthusiasts. To my knowledge, the international Lawrence scholar cartel took no interest. The folks digging in their gardens next door knew who Lawrence was but he affected their lives in no way.

Here in Red Cloud, the folks really know who Cather is. The tour guides and the receptionists and the archive workers are all Red Cloud natives. As I noted above, the bed and breakfast here is in Willa’s parent’s home and is called Cather’s Retreat. The Foundation is preparing to restore and revitalize an entire block of the business district to expand space for their archives. The Opera House where Willa gave her high school oration is back in business, restored thanks to her largesse, and is again a cultural center for the town.

Funny thing. Willa left Red Cloud to go to college and never lived here again. But she loved it and wrote about it and came back for visits up to 1930 when her parents died. Once she started making it as a writer – she sent money home. She always remained a member of Red Cloud’s Episcopal church, and when she heard through letters that folks were going through hard financial times, a mysterious check would arrive in the mail.

And now, though Willa Cather has been dead since 1947 – she is still taking care of her hometown.

Banks of the Kankakee

We were camping on the banks of the Kankakee River and, after our little dinner of taco salad from Wendy’s because it was too wet to cook, we went for a walk. How fast summer comes on! Just last week I was wearing my Gore-tex against the cold and now I’m wearing it against the mosquitos. Patrushka was shooting and I was just pondering. In fact, I was so busy pondering that a beaver swam right by, took a bite of grass, and paddled on upstream. Never saw the old pig.
I was looking at some piers of yellow, hand-dressed stone rising out of the misting river, all eroded, with little bushes and trees digging their roots in for the duration. The river was also digging away — at the upsteam side of the foundations. It has already carved little tooth cavities at the waterline of each pier. Two more piers stand on either bank. I could see they were clogged and strangled with vines like a Mayan ruin in Quintana Roo. The bridge they once held up must have washed away or torn been down years ago.

Kinda gets a pig thinking. Each one of those stones was knocked into shape by a guy working hard all morning. Maybe all day. All that work, all that struggle and sweat to get those piers up across the river and now we don’t even know what the bridge was used for. Maybe some lady at the historical society knows. Was it a railroad bridge? Why did people way out here in the country want to cross the river so bad and what capitalist with what dreams of glory paid the navvys’ wages?

What’s the point? That’s what it comes down to. I know, they got paid for their work and that’s what matters. But still, all that work and now no one knows or cares. Why not just live out in the marshes and croak like a bullfrog?

When Patrushka starts feeling low she’ll wonder why she bothers to take all these photographs. They just go in a drawer. Just more stuff the kids will have to figure out what to do with when we’re gone.

“Look at your mother’s paintings”, she will say. “Nobody wants to hang them, but nobody’s willing to throw them away, either. So there they stand in their bubble-wrap, year after year, gathering dust in your brother’s garage.”

It is kind of depressing all right, but I tend to see the issue in another way. To me, these guys were dressing stones all day because they needed the money (of course), but maybe they enjoyed the work too. It was skilled labor, hard sweaty work with the other guys. Maybe they liked making those stones and maybe they got a kick out of seeing those piers going up in the river and knowing they were part of it.

Patrushka takes pictures and my mother painted pictures because it gives or gave them joy in the moment they were seeing the idea of it, then executing it with crazy brushstrokes and color mixing and aperture checking, then fiddling around in the darkroom or on the easel until it looked the way they wanted it.

I think of my Dad, Dwight Newton, the newspaper columnist. Certainly he had one of the world’s more trivial careers — if you take the galactic view. He wrote about television for the San Francisco Examiner every day including Sunday for 26 years (except he got to go on vacation – he was a union guy) and he had to get that damned column out no matter what and he reviewed every silly sitcom and corny western that came out each season and interviewed every flash in the pan, you never heard of him actor who starred for six episodes of Pigs On The Run before they cancelled it.

He gave them all the same attention, the same focus, then he rushed back to the office to type type type exactly the right number of inches to fill his space in time for the first edition.

I doupt if he ever groaned for a moment about all his columns gathering dust forever on library shelves and microfilm fiches because nobody remembers now who Tal Koolguy was or cares. Dad was having a great time and he had to get the column out and he took pride in getting the words just right. A nifty turn of phrase lightened his day considerable.

Did Ernest Hemingway have a better time than my Dad? Did Georgia O’Keefe have more fun than my Mom? Greatness is a gift from God and it’s no good to strive for it. Maybe a time does come when you have to say I’m going to change my life around so I can do my art, my craft, my skill, the thing I love to do, all day every day so I’ll…what?

For me, I’m just going to walk back to camp in the gloaming and sit by my tent and swat the mosquitos and wonder. Because that’s what I do – I’m the Pondering Pig.