My cousin invited me to look through some old family photos she’d inherited from her grandmother, who was my aunt. It was a wonderful evening, but the true gift of it appeared at the end of the many photos we saw. I found myself picking up a portrait, roughly 8” x 10”, of a family, and I knew in an instant I was looking, for the first time, at my great-grandparents, Henry and Mary Ann Martin. I knew because I recognized the others in the portrait: my grandfather, Will, and his first wife, who died from tuberculosis, and their two children; Will’s brother Charlie and his wife and son.
And so it came to be that I wrote a novel, and my very nice agent found a very nice editor who liked the book. He made some very smart editorial suggestions, and I took nearly every one of them as I prepared the final manuscript. Then a very nice copy editor had fun marking places where I used a comma when I didn’t need one, or needed a comma where I didn’t use one, and ran roughshod over all things grammatical. In the meantime, the publisher put together the galleys, also known as advanced reader copies or uncorrected proofs—an almost real book with the wonderful cover that a graphic artist designed. The very nice editor/publisher invited me to the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute where I met with independent booksellers and signed galleys for them while my very nice editor/publisher spent a good deal of time pitching my book to these very nice booksellers. And like this, the process of bringing a book to bookstore shelves began.
I’m posting this entry earlier than usual this week because tomorrow I’ll be flying to Denver to be at the American Booksellers’ Association’s Winter Institute to promote my new novel that’s coming out this May.
This is a post about a little boy, who was shy and sensitive, but also very curious. The boy that I was who had the good fortune of having a mother who loved to read and who went to great lengths to make sure that I developed that love, too.
I’ve reached the age, sixty, when I sometimes meet people I knew a long time ago in my youth, and I can see the boys or girls they once were before time had their way with them. I know the same holds true for me. Somewhere inside this “mature” body is the boy who once had long, thick, wavy hair, the boy who could jump high enough to dunk a basketball (if only my hands had been large enough to palm the ball), the boy before age took a good deal of that hair away and taught him lessons about the gravity of middle age, the boy before the creases and traumas life brings to us all, the boy before he’d been tested.
I just visited the fine folks of Eastern Kentucky University’s low-residency MFA program, The Bluegrass Writers Studio, and was reminded once again of all the warm and wonderful people who are part of this extended family we sometimes call our community of writers. I love seeing old friends and making new ones. Each time I visit a group of writers, I’m heartened by how many smart, funny, generous, and loving people practice this craft. You folks at EKU, you know who you are! Thank you so much for your hospitality.
The first time I applied for admission to an MFA program, I didn’t get in, so I applied to the same program the next year and was accepted. I’m stubborn that way. It takes a whole lot of stubborn to be a writer. I’m thinking about all the folks who are right now applying for MFA programs, and I thought I’d offer some tips for what to do if you get in, and what to do if you don’t.
When I was a boy, it was my family’s New Year’s Eve tradition to gather for an oyster soup supper, followed by a rousing round of Rook, a trick-taking card game, that pitted one set of partners against another. We played a lot of Rook in those days. My father and my uncles were competitive, and the games were full of big talk and big egos. One uncle in particular absolutely hated to lose, and he could occasionally be goaded into a fit of temper.
Nearly each year at Christmas, my father and I went out into our woods and cut a cedar tree. I only remember us having a store-bought pine tree a handful of times. So the cedar tree was sort of a Christmas tree, but not really—not a red pine, or a white pine, or a scotch pine; not even a spruce or a fir. Just a common cedar tree, the sort that grew abundantly in the woods and the fence rows in our part of southeastern Illinois. As such, our “Christmas” tree was never as shapely as those shorn for retail sale. I never thought much about it at the time. We were country people, accustomed to using what we had on hand.
This Christmas season has me thinking about privilege—those who have it, and those who don’t; those who are in the mainstream, and those who aren’t. I grew up in a small rural area of southeastern Illinois, an area where most people were working class. I remember a few folks who appeared to be on another level financially, either due to extensive land holdings or by virtue of the good fortune of having oil discovered on their property, but by and by we were all the same: laborers of modest means.
Last week, my advanced undergraduate creative nonfiction workshop read Patrick Madden’s “Writing the Brief Contrary Essay” from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Madden talks about what he calls “essayistic subversion,” by which he means the essays that, to quote Phillip Lopate, “go against the grain of popular opinion.” Think, for example, of Lopate’s own essay, “Against Joie de Vivre,” which begins with the line, “Over the years I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” You see here the stance of the contrarian, the curmudgeon, the essayist who’s willing to take an unpopular viewpoint in an attempt to discover a new way of thinking that may very well be just as valid—perhaps, even more so—than the sentiment of the general population. Madden suggests a writing exercise that asks writers to take a popular truism and turn it on its ear. For example, one might choose, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and then write a brief contrary essay against that observation.