Friday, December 6, 2013

Favorite Albums of 2013

It’s always a daunting task to pull together a list of my favorite albums of the year, but each year I try to do it.  With that said, I will probably leave off something I love.  And there will most likely be glaring omissions that I “should” have on here, but don’t for whatever reason.  This list is not necessarily a “best of” so much as it is a gathering of the albums I listened to the most this year, perhaps because they are the best albums of the year or maybe just because they struck my mood the best.  At any rate, I think they are all high quality records that everyone should check out.  I’m listening them here in reverse alphabetical order, simply because it’s too hard for me to rank them.  I hope you will list your favorites in the comments below.  

Holly Williams-The Highway.  Yes, she’s Hank Williams’ granddaughter.  And her daddy is Bocephus.  But that doesn’t matter because this is definitely one of the best written albums of the year, and Williams has the vocal chops to pull it off beautifully.  Each song is like a short story and taken together this is a well-produced collection perfect for long road trips.

Vampire Weekend-Modern Vampires of the City.  You may scoff and think they are a band only fit for hordes of screaming teenagers.  You’d be wrong.  The lead singer and songwriter of this band, Ezra Koenig, is somewhat of a musical genius and has crafted a true album full of brilliant hooks and profound lyrics cushioned by songs that get your feet tapping.  Definitely amongst my most-listened to records.

Kasey Musgraves-Same Trailer, Different Park.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed a mainstream country album so much.  Each song is a songwriting gem and the production is great, too.  Musgraves manages to reveal the true, complex heart of rural life in songs that call small towns out on their hypocrisy, challenge religious status quos, defy stereotypes, and manage to have fun all at the same time.  “Merry Go Round” is one of the best country songs in decades.

Scott Miller-Big Big World.  Full disclosure here:  Miller is a friend of mine and over the years we’ve done some work together.  But this is still one of his all-time best albums.  It sometimes rocks and often it smooths its way into your heart.  The songs like “How Am I Ever Gonna Be Me”, “Freight Train Heart/Stone Wall Love” and “Goin’ Home” are complex, emotional, and intelligent.  This album is definitely the most underrated of the year due to the fact that Miller doesn’t just not play the industry game, he outright defies it (check the name of his independent record label, F.A.Y., an anagram for a phrase he’s saying to the industry...I’ll let you figure it out on your own). 

Lorde-Pure Heroine.  She’s a teenager.  She’s brilliant.  My favorite pop record of the year, and despite the widespread open-armed acceptance of this album into the pop mainstream there is still something defiant, independent, and fierce about it.  A debut album that has managed to not be dirtied by the corporate forces behind it.  Lorde calls out hypocritical artists like Jay-Z and Beyonce (come on, now, how’s a rapper gonna be a real rapper when he’s embedded in the corporate world so firmly and hangs out with the president?  How’s Beyonce gonna encourage people to get empowered and then tell them to “bow down” to her?), dares to examine issues like class and discrimination against the rural, and lays down a mean beat to boot. 

Valerie June-Pushin’ Against a Stone.  This Memphis-based musician calls her sound “organic moonshine roots music”.  I can attest to that, but I’d also add that these songs are full of grit, longing, and everything in between.  A sort of Appalachian soul album, this record was big in Europe but hasn’t managed to catch on in America.  That’s a shame.

Kings of Leon-Mechanical Bull.  No, it doesn’t rock out like its predecessors, but it still rocks out.  And I think Caleb Followill has one of the all-time best rock voices.  It’s in fine form here.

Jim James-Regions of Light and Sound of God.  I’ve toured some with Jim and he is one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet.  Full disclosure over.  And my personal feelings about him have nothing to do with this being one of the best albums of the year.  It’s like an hour-long meditation with genius orchestration.  It is so, so fine. 

Jason Isbell-Southeastern.  I’ll say it:  if I was forced to pick an album of the year, this would most likely be it.  A masterpiece.  The songwriting is superb and the songs “Cover Me Up” and “Elephant” might need to duke it out for the song of the year award.  The fact is that every song on this album is tight, complex, emotional, full of vivid imagery and characterization.  This is a recording of a master songwriter at his best. 

Patty Griffin-American Kid.  Even though this is an album-long tribute to her late father, the record transcends that into being the story of anyone who listens to it.  That’s one of the magical powers Griffin has here, and this album gives us some of her best work including “Wild Old Dog,” “Ohio,” and “I Am Not a Bad Man”.  She has done no wrong in her whole career and continues that streak here.

Daft Punk-Random Access Memories.  You can’t not dance while listening to it.  You can’t not sing along.  “Get Lucky” was my song of the summer.

Basia Bulat-Tall Tall Shadow.  I’m hoping more people will come to know Bulat, who already has a small but devoted following.  That voice.  These songs.  That occasional visit from the autoharp.  I love everything on it.

Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers-Self-titled.  Another criminally underrated album from one of the best singers working today.  Funky, soulful, bluesy.  A great, great album that deserves to be heard by more folks.  And if you ever get a chance to catch them live, that’s even better.  Highly recommended. 

The Avett Brothers-Magpie and the Dandelion.  I was prepared for this album to be a let-down after the one-two punch of  I and Love and You (2009) and The Carpenter (2012) but they managed to pull it off again, crafting a very fine album that perfectly blends elements of folk, rock, bluegrass, and country.  Best songs:  “Morning Song” (they bring in their whole family for the chorus, a tribute to their late aunt) and “Bring Your Love to Me” (opening lyrics:  “Bring your love to me/I will hold it like a newborn child”).

Arcade Fire-Reflektor.  The title-track is irresistible but I was surprised to find that just about everything on this double-disk concept album is.  My favorite, “Normal Person,” shows that Arcade Fire can not only do great disco-influenced work like “Reflektor” but can also rock out.  

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Most Patient

     I had a blessing this evening.
     Often, just before dusk, I take a walk in our backyard.  I especially love evening walks this time of year, when the cool of the day settles down over the land and the early autumn light fades like a lamp that is being dimmed. The crickets and other night things have thinned their singing since the heat left with summer's dying, but a few sing on.  Their songs seem sweeter and more tender in the fall, as if they know their demise is at hand.  Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote that crickets were "the sound of silence made audible" and during this time of year, when the leaves are just beginning to turn and the smell of change hangs in the air, there is the timbre of a silence quietening more during each gloaming.
     I like this time of day best of all because there is a stillness that is palpable more than seeable or hearable.  We know the stillness is there if we are still enough to take note.
     After I had walked the yard once around, the stillness was broken by a great cacophony of cardinals, jays, and wrens who broke into a wild commotion.  This isn't uncommon in our back yard as a multitude of songbirds live there, swooping in out of the long branches of the Tree-of-Heaven that spreads itself out across the yard as if its many limbs are offering canopy.
     That Tree-of-Heaven is one reason we bought this place.  The back yard was certainly key.  I had lived my entire life in a very rural place, most of my years spent on a piece of property surrounded by lush woods that one could traipse through for miles without seeing anything but trees.  So when I moved to a small town to take a job as a professor at a liberal arts college, I thought I'd try something new:  we bought a house that was less than a half mile from my office and classroom partly so that I could either walk or ride my bicycle to work each day.  But I had never lived in town and although I love this house and this place, I still grieve the loss of the beech trees I knew for so many years at my former home.  I miss the mossy banks of the creek that ran in a jagged line through those woods.  I miss the brilliant red heads of pileated woodpeckers and the songs of whippoorwills I could always count on for company.
     So it was absolutely necessary that if I was going to live in town I had to have some woods about me.  Luckily, this place provided just that, abutting a large expanse of college forest containing hundreds, if not thousands, of undisturbed woods. And the back yard boasted not only that wonderful Tree-of-Heaven (which is only not wonderful in that it propagates relentlessly and its limbs smell like burnt peanut butter when broken--thus the nickname of "stink tree") with its branches brushing the porch just off the master bedroom, but also a nice lot of trees.  Dominant among them are two queens that tower over a hundred feet high, and two of my favorite kinds of trees, to boot:  a tulip poplar and a hickory.
     And within the poplar, the hickory, and the Tree-of-Heaven the birds were having conniption fits.  I became even stiller and watched the trees.  Birds are melodramatic but rarely this ecstatic in their squalling, so I knew something afoot.  There is so much to see if we pay attention.  
     Then, on magnificent wings that were ten times as wide as his body and which seemed to fill my ears with the sound of swooping while being simultaneously stealth, a barred owl sailed from the top of the hickory tree, passing over me.  It is disconcerting to see a bird so large flying over because we are not used to it.  We're used to songbirds darting about, but this was a very large owl.  He (I was unable to discern his gender but he struck me as grandfatherly) perched on a branch of the tulip poplar and considered me from behind a screen of leaves, his eyes as tightly latched to my face as his feet were to that limb. If he blinked I never saw him.  Staring contest won, he must have decided I was harmless. He glided back to his original spot near the top of the hickory.   And he sat there for the next hour.
     I squatted down in the yard and watched him.  I realized that I had never seen an owl before, and certainly not while it was still light, as twilight was still stretched out pink and golden.  The owl had settled in a patch of that golden light, making him seem beatific, as if the light within him was suddenly made visible by eyes like mine.
     He turned his head and watched some small thing that I had no power to see or hear.  But he did.  After a great stillness of many minutes, he rolled his head to the other side to peer into new territory for a long while.  A few minutes of studying.  Then his great head revolved and his dark eyes fell on me.  We stared at each other again.  He was not as mesmerized by me as I was him, but he was certainly interested.  And all the while he was completely still, unconcerned by the birds who continued to throw tantrums because he was nearby.  I mostly zoned them out so I could concentrate on the owl, and I believe he did the same.  Their cries did not interest him at all.
     We stayed that way for a time.  Until darkness had swallowed us up and the cold seeped into my bare arms.  Until the tiny black mosquitoes started to feast upon me.  Until I could no longer see him, but knew he was still there, watching.  Waiting.
     While I spent time with the owl I thought a lot about patience.  I watched his diligent composure in waiting for his supper and studied on how quick I am to give up, to lose my fortitude. There was a kind of dignity in his persistence.  Even the way he tucked in his wings and squared his shoulders suggested a nobility that is much rarer to see among human beings.  I said from the outset that I had a blessing this evening, and a blessing is of many folds.  One of these is that I learned to be more persistent in my stillness.
     And I thought about what I could learn from the fact that my first reaction to seeing the owl was to take his picture.  Nowadays we seem to think that if we don't take a picture of something, it never happened.  As soon as I felt my pocket for my phone to snap the photograph, I decided I would wait awhile.  I'd spend some time just being still first.  The picture could wait, and if it didn't happen, then that was okay.  I eventually took the photo (as you can see, below) because I wanted to make sure I remembered him correctly.  I often use photography as a way to jump start my writing.  But I'm so glad I didn't snap his picture immediately.  I think somehow he trusted me the more for the waiting.
     Yet some self examination remains:  did I take the picture because I too have become one of those people who think that photographic evidence must be provided for every experience?  Or because I truly love the visual and count it as a touchstone for my own creative process as a writer?  I haven't looked at the picture once while writing this little essay, yet I will include it here to recall his beauty and stillness and remarkable staring prowess.   Perhaps it will come in handy if I write about him in the future. Still, some part of me wants to preserve the intimacy of my time with the owl without sharing this image.  Some part of me believes a wild thing like him shouldn't be captured on film.
     I believe that grappling with decisions like these can make us better people because these things make our brains work.  They force a certain part of our minds to kick into gear.  They lead us to learning.
     I also realized that when a blessing such as this happens to me--for seeing an owl in the daylight, when one can be seen properly is very rare--I immediately want to write about it.  As soon as the darkness, cold, and bug bites drove me inside I settled down at my writing table and put my fingers to the keys.  And somehow, the writing, the remembering, was almost as fine as the time spent in stillness and silence with the barred owl who is undoubtedly still out there, perhaps perched elsewhere, but very close still.  There is a sweet and fine comfort in that.

Note 1:  The barred owl is also sometimes known as "the hoot owl".  That's what we called them when I was growing up, and we heard them often.  We have heard this owl many times while living here, but have never seen him.

Note 2:  the brightness has been turned up on the photograph for better viewing.

For more on barred owls, go here.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Real Work

I come from hard-working people.
     My mother was orphaned at the age of nine, raised by cousins, and the first person in her family to graduate from high school.  She never had a bicycle or a birthday cake as a child.  My father was the next-to-youngest of nine siblings all being raised by a single mother after my paternal grandfather died when her youngest was still an infant.  Dad, like his brothers and sisters, had to leave school to work and help support the family.  A desire to be of more help led him to volunteer for the Vietnam.  
     Once my father returned from the war he spied a beautiful young woman at the local hangout, Finley's Drive-in, and before they knew it they were eloping to Jellico, Tennessee, a state border town that made an economy out of marrying people.  Justices-of-the-peace were everywhere in Jellico.  One could even get married by the butcher's case in the back of the IGA there (my cousin did so).  My parents found a little church, got hitched, and over the years since I've studied the picture many times.  My mother in her blue mini-skirt dress and beehive hairdo, my father in his checked blazer and black penny loafers.  The copper of the pennies he had inserted glint out at me.  
     Then they worked.  First they went North, like many young Appalachian couples of the time.  My father poured concrete on the Flint River Project and my mother worked an assembly line at the Gibson Refrigerator Factory in Flint, Michigan.  But they were too homesick and eventually came back to Southeastern Kentucky where my father first worked as a mechanic and then as a supervisor in a fiberglass factory (which blew up shortly after he retired, killing seven of his close friends) and as a concrete pourer on the side.  Often he worked eighteen hours a day.  My mother rose before daylight to cook breakfast, went in for an eight-hour shift where she was a lunch-lady (and later, a cashier) in the Lily Elementary School cafeteria (which we always called "the lunchroom").  She came home from work to cook supper and clean house.  She never sat down until darkness had overtaken the world.  
     They worked because they wanted to make sure I had more than they did.  Because they didn't want to go back to being poor.  Not because they were greedy, but because they wanted to provide for me and each other.  
     Everyone in my family was like this, which greatly defies that stereotype of the Appalachian people as lazy ne'er-do-wells who lie about on the porch with their hound-dogs, tipping back the moonshine jug.  My aunt came home with bloody hands from the yarn factory.  My uncle came home with coal-dust embedded in his skin, my grandfather lost his leg in the mines.  My cousins worked as waitresses and clerks and school bus drivers and Avon salespeople and Walmart associates, as farmers and horse jockeys and construction workers and plumbers.  
     I wrote.
     Throughout my teenage years and early twenties I had a plethora of jobs:  busboy, cook, dishwasher, cashier, Lowe's, WalMart, satellite-installer, concrete-pourer, newspaper reporter, mail carrier. 
     All the while, though, I was writing. 
     When I was finally able to become a full-time writer I felt an immense amount of guilt for not doing "physical labor."  And my writing was certainly not treated as real work by others.  I was the one in the famiy who was always called upon to take people to the doctor or run errands.  They'd say "Can you do that?  Everybody else has to work today?"  The implication, of course, being that what I was doing down there in my writer's shack was definitely not work.  Even though I made it clear to everyone that my writing day lasted from the time I took my daughters to school until I went to pick them up--roughly 8AM-3PM--people still dropped in all the time or constantly called me "just to chat" (when you have children at school you can't just "turn off the phone").  Despite the fact that I had a handwritten sign on the front door of my writer's shack (I am working.  Please don't knock and break my train of thought unless it is a complete emergency.) this was readily ignored.  People knocked all. the. time.  Usually just to drop in and see what I was "up to."  
     Since I wasn't going into a place to work and since my hands weren't getting dirty my work wasn't seen as real work by most of the people I knew.  And that led me to sometimes question whether or not my work was valid, whether or not I shouldn't have been doing something more physical as my labor. And I felt guilty for not working as hard as my parents did or as physically as others in my family.  Never mind that I raised a huge garden when I was writing A Parchment of Leaves to get better into character (a practice that I kept up after the novel was finished...I still raise a garden today).  Never mind that after my writing day was over I was constantly doing physical labor around the house and for others.  Never mind that I was always physically active and still cannot sit still very long (I sit still in my mind, writing while I garden or build raised beds or install new light fixtures or clean house).  I was still made to feel guilty for not doing physical labor as my primary means of making a living.
     So I am writing this blog to anyone who has been made to feel the same way.  Don't allow anyone to make you feel as if your writing-work isn't real work.  It is.  It is back-breaking, sweat-on-the-forehead hard.  I often say to people that I'm lucky that I get to do what I love for a living, that I feel so blessed to not have to work as physically hard as my parents did.  But it's still work. It's real work.  It's hard.  It's exhausting.  It's valid.  Don't let anyone tell you--or make you feel--otherwise.  
     All of this was brought on because this lovely Sunday morning I was reading for an upcoming class I'm teaching in Ireland.  And during that research I came across this amazing poem by Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who says everything I've said above in a much more subtle and beautiful way.  

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner's bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I've no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Make Your Writing As Clear as MUD

I always recommend that fellow writers look to film for inspiration.  Readers think in a cinematic way.  They are exposed to moving images constantly.  We can learn much from the storytelling qualities of the movies.  I particularly look to cinema to learn more about writing tense scenes of dialogue and to better present pacing and plotting.  Most of the great movies of real storytelling have to be seen at home since so few of them make their ways onto the big screen.  It is a rare treat to be able to go to the movie theatre and see a film that is a feat in storytelling.  Nowadays the cineplexes more often showcase the latest action thriller in which everything is constantly being blown up.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to be able to go to the movies with my daughters recently to see a movie that did just about everything right.  Not only did it tell a beautiful, layered story, but it also presented a way of life rarely captured on film.  One of my goals as a writer is to not only tell a good story but to also show a particular culture.  I strive to preserve rural ways of life since our modern media seems intent on either ignoring rural America or perpetuating stereotypes that life in rural places is something only to be escaped or ridiculed.              
            Mud, the new movie from Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) is an exception on all counts. 
            Like the best storytelling, Mud slowly reveals more and more layers.  Just when we think we know where it’s going, it takes us down another bend of the river. 
           We can learn a lot as writers by how much the story is revealed through the dialogue and how much is revealed through silence.  These are two essential lessons for writers.  The visuals are simple and stunning.
            Perhaps what I enjoyed most about Mud is that it shows a real world that few people know, although many think they understand.  Mud is set along the Mississippi River in Arkansas and showcases a disappearing way of life of those who live and work on the river.  The sense of place is palpable and has a profound impact on everything in the movie.  Like the best stories, the action could not happen anywhere else.  That is the importance of sense of place. Some of my favorite scenes in the movie are those that show a character passing through town in the back of his father’s pickup, watching as a very rural yet very New South passes by him, a New South that is not the romantic places of pastures and plantations but one of locally-owned Mexican restaurants, Dairy Freezes, junkyards, boat storage, new apartment developments.
             And these are people I know.  Rarely do I see them portrayed correctly on film.  They are working hard to get by (mot people would see them as poor; they don’t think of themselves that way, and neither should the viewer), don’t set an awful lot of store by material things (if only the culture as a whole could agree), and they care deeply about one another and their place in the world.  During one memorable scene a woman and her son approach a roadblock that first appears to be a wreck.  “Oh, I hope nobody’s hurt,” the woman says, dragging out each word like a little prayer.  Anyone who’s ever traveled a country road and come upon an accident has most likely uttered these words in that same exact cadence.  It’s a scene that only someone intimate with rural life could have written and directed. 
            I thought a whole lot about Beasts of the Southern Wild while watching Mud.  They are similar in many different ways.  And while I liked Beasts a lot, I also had some real problems with it:  why did those rural people have to be dirty all the time?  Why did they have to live with trash piled up in their homes?  (and I won’t even get into the gender stuff that bothered me…the little girl always being portrayed as masculine to show her strength (can’t strength be shown in the feminine, as well?), the father never receiving a true comeuppance for abusing her). But in Mud, these people are living rough but not nasty, some of them even making their living off of trash (in one great scene a character says, “That junk is his liveliehood!”) but never letting it overtake their lives the way the filmmakers portray it in Beasts and so many other movies about rural folks. 
            While there are many things to appreciate about Beats of the Southern Wild, it is interesting that that film had to rely on a fantastical South to be widely accepted, as so often is the case.  But Mud is unapologetic in presenting a rural place just as it is, with no romanticizing or vilifying.  That’s a hard feat to pull off and a balance that can only be achieved by an entire cast and crew who have a deep understanding of the place and its people. 
            One of the best things about Mud is how believable the characters are in expressing their love for one another.  Several times during the movie children and parents say “I love you” to one another.  Yet it is never done in a sentimental way.  Because this movie is dealing in the realness of life, in the best kind of drama:  the family dynamic.  We get the sense that we are eavesdropping on a real rural family in the midst of high drama.  It is that best sense of storytelling that Shakespeare spoke on when he said that (paraphrasing) all of life’s little dramas happen in the bedroom, meaning of course, that the stories we care the most about are those that happen in people’s homes:  small, intimate, real. 
              I could go on and on about this movie but the main thing I will say is this:  go see it.  There hasn’t been this great a depiction of rural life in a long, long while, and it joins a handful of other films that I think do justice to capturing contemporary life in a rural place (the main ones that come to mind immediately:  That Evening Sun, Come Early Morning, and Winter’s Bone). 
            The cast is phenomenal, too.  I’ve never been a big Matthew McConaughey fan but I will be rooting for him when he gets his much-deserved Oscar nomination for this role.  Sarah Paulson  and Ray McKinnon are quietly brilliant.  Sam Shepard gives his best performance in years and Reese Witherspoon is very effective in a nuanced turn that could have easily come off as a stereotype.  But the whole movie rests upon the backs of the two child actors, Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland (in his debut), who perfectly capture the speech and posture of modern rural boys. These are the kinds of boys I grew up with:  tough, vulnerable, witty, resourceful, wise beyond their years not because of street cred but because they had seen people work hard all of their lives. 
            It's not a totally perfect movie (small spoilers:  there is a very confusing shot toward the end and the lead boy too readily responds violently to adults; I didn't believe that little boy would punch Matthew McConaughey in the mouth) but I loved every minute of Mud and I can’t recommend it highly enough to everyone, but especially writers needing a boost in their creativity. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Paying Homage

While in Louisville this week to participate in festivities honoring the Dalai Lama's visit I had the opportunity to linger at my favorite historical marker again.  You can read about my connection to this spot in this recent blog post about Thomas Merton, if you haven't already.  Truly a sacred spot for me, and many others.  I always get a boost out of visiting this marker while in Louisville.  I think it's important for us as writers to have places to go like this.  In England and Ireland literary spots abound because so much attention is paid to the rich literary history of those countries but often in America that gets overlooked.  When you can, seek out places that should be important to us as writers. I've been lucky to be in many places that were integral to the lives of writers like Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Margaret Mitchell, Lee Smith, Willa Cather, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Denise Giardina, Alex Haley, Flannery O'Connor, Alice Walker, and others.  I am determined to one day visit the birth-town of Willa Cather and the grave of Zora Neale Hurston.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Best Simple Advice

To be a better writer:  READ. 

Here are the novels that have had the biggest impact on me as a writer.  They’ve taught me how to tell a story, how to write a sentence, how to make a plot, how to write a scene of dialogue.  They’ve proven to me that all good writing is about emotion.  They’ve taught me about life and about writing.  This is an ever-changing, evolving list, but today these are the most important novels to me (lots of poetry and nonfiction has been important, too, but I'm focusing here on fiction).

Isabel Allende-The House of the Spirits
Harriette Arnow-The Dollmaker
Margaret Atwood-Alias Grace, The Handmaid’s Tale
Larry Brown-Father and Son, Joe, Facing the Music
Chris Cleave-Little Bee
Emma Donoghoe-Room
Willa Cather-My Antonia, O Pioneers, Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Song of the Lark
Michael Dorris-A Yellow Raft in Blue Water
Louise Erdrich-Love Medicine,  The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No-Horse
Denise Giardina-Storming Heaven, The Unquiet Earth
Graham Greene-The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair
Thomas Hardy-Jude the Obscure, The Woodlanders, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
S.E. Hinton-The Outsiders
Zora Neale Hurston-Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Garbriel Garcia Marquez-Of Love and Other Demons, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
John Irving-A Prayer for Owen Meany
D.H. Lawrence-Sons and Lovers, The Fox
Harper Lee-To Kill a Mockingbird
Toni Morrison-Beloved
Micahel Onndaatje-Coming Through Slaughter
Marilynne Robinson-Housekeeping, Gilead, Home
Lee Smith-Fair and Tender Ladies, Saving Grace, Black Mountain Breakdown
Wallace Stegner-Angle of Repose
Alice Walker-The Color Purple

Friday, May 17, 2013

Make Biscuits, Not War

Make art everyday, any way you can.

Work on your novel.  Or poem, essay, short story, play, screenplay.  Or a painting, song, sculpture.  film, photograph.  Most of all, expand your notion of what art is.  Anything that is made with care can be art, too.  The art is what goes into it almost as much as what comes out.  The art is in the making as much as the end product.  So if you can't put your energies to that novel today, keep your creative juices flowing by making art in your own way.

Bake homemade biscuits.  Plant tomatoes.  Hoe your garden.  Make a pie (give it to a neighbor).  Read a book to a child (performance art).  Walk in the woods and make an art of observation.  Have a dance party in your living room.  When my daughters were little, we did this almost every night and those are some of my best memories.  Develop all those pictures that are stored on your laptop and make a photo album that you can actually show to people.  Find a recipe you always wanted to make, go to the store and buy all the ingredients, and do it.  Get your mother to teach you how to make those aforementioned biscuits.  Cut flowers from your yard and make arrangements throughout your house.  Change the oil in your car.  Build that deck you've been wanting.  Rearrange your porch furniture.  Rearrange your bedroom furniture.  Organize your tool shed.

My point, of course, is that we must stay creative.  We must never become those people who just come in from a long day of work and plop down in front of the television or computer to numb ourselves for hours.  Okay, sometimes plopping down in front of the television for a numbing session is required, but it should definitely be the exception and not the rule...and I know plenty of folks for whom it is the rule.  For God's sake, put away your damn cell phone for awhile (unless you're using it to create a film or a song or a photograph or a blog, but put it away for awhile after you've done that.  Your hands need to be free).  Keep your mind working,  churning, turning.

I've made my point.  Now I'm going to eat those biscuits.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Very often when I am on the road and do a Q&A after a reading or presentation, people will hesitantly raise their hands and when called upon will ask:  "What inspires you?"  It's a question I always dread because the answer is too simple, and too complex, all at the same time.  When I give my honest answer:  "Everything," half the audience might think I'm being  facetious while the other half may think I'm corny.  But it's true.  As writers, we must be open to everything in the whole world moving us to write.  For me--and it doesn't have to be like this for everyone--writing feels like a kind of worship, or prayer.  Not just the act of tapping out words on the keyboard, but the actual thinking process of writing.  It is meditation, prayer, worship, living.  If that sounds overwrought, so be it.  

In my new novel I am often looking to the writings of Thomas Merton to guide my lead characters.  Merton was a Catholic writer,  poet, activist, mystic, and a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky although he was a native of France.  He lived from 1915 until 1968 and became a priest in 1949, the year after his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, became an international bestseller and inspired thousands of people to flock to monasteries in the United States.   He wrote more than 70 books that often focused on spirituality, social justice, and interfaith religion.  His most enduring legacy is probably his ecumenical work.  He was a pioneer of melding the Christian tradition with Asian spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama.   

Although I was born and raised in Southeastern Kentucky just about two hours from where Merton lived most of his life, I was brought up in a very anti-Catholic environment and never knew about him until I was studying for my Master of Fine Arts at Spalding University (a Catholic school, coincidentally) in Louisville, Kentucky.  While out on a stroll I found a historical marker about Merton--only about a block from my dormitory--that changed my life forever.  On the corner of 4th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard in the heart of downtown Louisville the historical marker gives a nice, brief biography of Merton on one side, and on the other states:

A Revelation
Merton had a sudden insight at this corner Mar. 18, 1956, that led him to redefine his monastic identity with greater involvement in social justice issues.  He was "suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people..." He found them "walking around shining like the sun."  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. 

This is a strange kind of historical marker to be found in America.  In this country we are not much on marking mystical sites, as would be much more common in Europe and Asia.  So I continue to be surprised that this plaque exists.  And I continue to be so very glad.

Because it was another sign to me that we must constantly be on the lookout for discovering new things, which has been the key mantra I have adopted as a writer and have talked about many times before, including a few times on this blog.  

And because it made me know that I had to find out more about Merton.  The first book I bought by him was New Seeds of Contemplation.  It is now one of my all-time favorite books and is definitely the one that had the most tremendous impact on my spiritual education.   

As soon as I read that plaque, I looked around, and I had a better empathy for the people around me.  I remembered a favorite quote by Plato:  "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."  And I thought:  that'd be a good thesis for a novel.  And that's when Little Fire was born.  

Years went by before I was able to start that novel that I tucked in the back of my mind until other projects were borne.  And finally I was able to work in a scene where someone else has a revelation like Merton's.  After a long battle with doubt, my character has an epiphany of goodness around him that changes everything.  

The lesson here, again, is that we must always be on the lookout for everything to inspire us to write.  When people ask what inspires writers they expect us to say our children, or nature, or something like that.  But we must be inspired by everything.  As Merton said, Everything that is, is holy.  And if that's true (I think it is), then everything is worthy of our attention and can feed our creativity.  

To learn more about Merton's revelation, including reading his journal entry about the moment, visit this great page.  There is also a beautifully written look at the marker here.  

Photo credit (Merton): 
Photo credit (marker): 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Geography of Fiction

When writing fiction, it always helps to have a geography in your mind, a space within which you can walk around and orient yourself so that your characters know where they are, which way to move, where to stand, how to be in that space.

In my new novel most of the action takes place in Key West, Florida, although my main character is a man from rural Tennessee.  He sees the island from the point of view of an outsider so he thinks of it as exotic, foreign, even like a world that is the opposite of his own.  As one of the lines in the novel says, he has gone from "a world of trees to one of the sea."  He loves Key West, but he is forever missing his home, the fictional community of Harpeth River, Tennessee (based on several small communities along the Harpeth River in the area just outside Nashville).

Throughout the novel he is drawn back to a pivotal moment in his life that happened near the banks of the Harpeth River.  It's a moment that haunts him.  This is just one example of how I have created a geography of fiction to fuel my writing.  Whenever I needed to feel I was with that character in this integral moment in his life, I would often go to the banks of the Laurel River, very near where I grew up, and where my parents still lived.  A couple times I went to the actual Harpeth River of the book but since that is about three hours from me, in times of need I let the Laurel stand in for the Harpeth.  The same elements are there:  a quality of light that is filtered through river-fed leaves, the slow, barely noticeable movement of the river in summertime, wildflowers waving in the sunlight just before the woods swallow me up at the river's edge.

I go there to get into my character's mind, to know his world better, to know the geography he thinks of as home.  Even if you are creating a world completely different from your own, I recommend having touchstone places that allow you to get beneath the novel's skin and roam around.

I'm including here a couple of very short videos that show you the place that has helped me know the character of Micah Sharp so well, and to create a scene that was life-changing for him and will haunt him forever.  Go here to see the Pasture.  And here to see the River. If I play my cards right, readers will feel as if they've been to this place, too.

And a not-so-gentle reminder to all writers, and all people:  get outside more often.  Nothing will do a better job of making you a better writer, or a better person.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Urge for Going

My new novel is largely populated by people who are running away with something.  Some of them are running from love, others from hate.  Some are trying to outrun their grief while others are in self-exile because of past mistakes.  All of them have had the urge for going that is so perfectly articulated in one of Joni Mitchell's best songs, and one of the cornerstones for my novel's soundtrack.  I encourage everyone to create a soundtrack for any long piece of writing they're doing.  My novel soundtracks usually have about 75 or 80 songs.  Some of the pieces show up in the actual piece of work but others simply inform scenes.  All of them help me to get to the emotional truths of my characters and even sometimes reveal things about my characters that I wouldn't have known had I not tried to understand the music with which they identify.  In this particular video it is not only the words and music that are important, but the images, too.  I must have listened to this song a hundred times while working on Little Fire.  And each time I learned something new.

Only use songs in your books that truly play an important role in the work of art.  Never use a song just because you like it.  In this novel, Joni Mitchell herself becomes a sort of character because for a couple of my characters her music articulates all of the heartbreak and pining they have felt throughout their lives.  Mitchell is an artist who has always incorporated motifs of travel, loneliness, and heartbreak into her work so it's only natural that she be a musician featured in a book that deals with the same themes.

Also it is important to point out that when listening to a song that is this perfectly written I am not only learning some emotional truth about the characters' lives but I am also being inspired by such perfect writing as Mitchell's.  Every line is a wonder.  Surround yourself with art--music, photographs, paintings, films, whatever--that inspires you with its beauty and complexity.

Note:  Don't let the French at the beginning throw you; that only lasts the first few seconds of the film.

Urge for Going, by Joni Mitchell

I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold
And shivering trees are standing in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go

I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

I had me a man in summertime
He had summer-colored skin
And not another girl in town
My darling's heart could win
But when the leaves fell trembling down
Bully winds did rub their faces in the snow
He got the urge for going And I had to let him go

He got the urge for going
When the meadow grass was turning brown
Summertime was falling down and winter was closing in

The warriors of winter they gave a cold triumphant shout
And all that stays is dying and all that lives is getting out
See the geese in chevron flight flapping and racing on before the snow
They've got the urge for going, they've got the wings to go

They get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

I'll ply the fire with kindling and pull the blankets to my chin
And I'll lock the vagrant winter out and bolt my wandering in
I'd like to call back summertime and have her stay jut another month or so
She's got the urge for going and I guess she'll have to go

And she get the urge for going when meadow grass is turning brown
All her empires are falling down
Winter's closing in

Monday, May 13, 2013

Listen to Your Elders

I grew up surrounded by older people, and I stuck as close to them as I could.  I hid beneath kitchen tables, porches, and quilting racks so I could eavesdrop on their juiciest stories.  But I also piled into cars with them when they went to town and told stories about each house we passed, sat in John boats with them while they fished and gave tips on the best way to reel in a bluegill, walked the hills with them while they announced the names of trees and plants and tuned their ears to birdcalls so they could identify their songs.  Most of all, I listened to their stories.  Stories about hard times, old times.  Stories about ways of life that were gone with the wind.  But within those tales there was always something to apply to the right here and now.  There was always wisdom weaving itself in and out and around their words.

We don't mix generationally enough any more.  The young stay with the young, the old with the old.  And something incredibly valuable is lost because of that.

To become a better writer--to become a better person--talk to your elders.  Listen to them.  Ask them to tell you stories.  Or let them be.  You will learn something, no matter how you go about it.

In this picture is my aunt, Sis.  She is almost 80.  I have been listening to her tell stories my entire life.  She has informed my writing more than anyone else and my character Anneth, featured in Clay's Quilt and The Coal Tattoo, is loosely based on her.  She has worked hard all of her life.  She has laughed and cried and done everything in a big, beautiful, messy way.  That's life.  That's the way I want to live. And that's how I want my characters to live:  by giving it their all.  By experiencing everything they can and loving all of it while they are able.  Sis taught me that.

Last winter she and I visited the holler where she lived as a little girl.  Puncheon Camp, deep in the hills of Leslie County, Kentucky.  In this picture you can see the hill behind her where she took a shortcut across to get to elementary school.  The creek was twice as big when she was a girl, half of it pushed underground when the road was built.  Back then the creek served as road, too, with horses and even some trucks rumbling their ways over the rocks and little waterfalls to get to the top of the ridge.  Her family had some terrible times on Puncheon Camp.  But some great ones, too.  That day she told me dozens of stories I had never heard before, even though she's been telling me stories every since the mid 1970s.  She is an endless font of good tales.

If I hadn't been listening to my elders as a child, and even now, as an adult, I would have missed out on so much.  My writing would not have bloomed without them.  We live in a world where people know more about vapid celebrities than they do about their grandparents.  We live in a world where we never go over to visit our elderly neighbors.  Change that about yourself and it will make your life and your writing better.  I guarantee it.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Going to Key West (Using Music-2)

Litte Fire is my first novel to be set completely outside somewhere I have actually lived.  The novel is essentially a road novel with the majority of the action set in Key West, Florida.  Since the book is about a man from rural Tennessee who has kidnapped his child and is on the run, he feels like Key West is the most exotic yet reachable place for him.  While writing the novel I was lucky to have help from friends like Annie Dillard, a resident of Key West, and the Studios of Key West, which offers lodging for artists.  I came to know Key West very well, spending a lot of time there not as a tourist but experiencing it through the eyes of my main characters, who were on the run and found it to be their strange new home.  One of the things that absolutely helped to put me there was choosing music that not only talked about the ocean but also songs that made me feel as if I was in Key West, even when I was back home in Kentucky, conjuring it while I tapped away on my laptop.  Here are a couple of the songs that helped put me there the best.