I struggle with the complexity of the stories and the accessibility of language in my two novels. Will a young reader stumble on a word more common in the books of my own childhood than in hers? Will she finish a book with so many characters and twists?
The point I’ve come to is that while I certainly do not wish to confuse, bore or frustrate readers, I do hope to pass on some of the richness of detail I was fortunate enough to be exposed to not only in my early readings, but in my own childhood. My father, a character himself, devoured sea stories, and could quote Shakespeare and Walter Scott at the drop of the hat. My mother, a painter and poet, quoted the Romantic poets almost daily. My big sister Lalu is a marvelous storyteller herself and read me Thurber with a wicked giggle. My late sister Robin McCorquodale published several acclaimed books and sang mezzo soprano in New York. My brother Grainger Hunt sang rock-and-roll and played Henry IV on stage. My own literary influences were Shakespeare, Homer, Twain, Verne, Stevenson, Doyle, Wells, Hammett, Hellman, O’Brian, Chandler and McMurtry. I read them still.
Everybody has an interesting story, but it’s generally not the one they’ll tell you first. How Bob kicked the winning field goal in the last high school game is interesting to Bob. It’s the story that makes Bob feel giddy as he anticipates excitement rising in your expression. To get a grand sense of this, read William Shatner’s or Donald Trump’s autobiographies. They’re stuffed with vignettes that portray them as brave, smart and very cool. (I actually enjoyed Shatner’s.) They’re the same stories you’ve been button-holed in the corner at a cocktail party to hear. There are one or two in this blog to be honest.
The good stories are the ones you pull out of yourself like arrowheads. They make you squirm. They’re embarrassing or shameful – so much so they’re likely to be embedded in fiction, or told as though they happened to someone else.
Those are the ones I want to hear, and write. Most of us, I suspect, have several. But, like I say, they’re hard to tell.
*The painting is Leonardo DaVinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474.
I’m at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR this weekend pitching my new book. I must say the more editors I know, the more I like them. Publishers, bless them all, love numbers. Editors love words. They are the gardeners of books.
*Painting by Maurice de Vlaminck.
One of my favorite blues songs is Boz Scagg’s “Loan Me a Dime.” My favorite version – and there are many fine ones – is the one he recorded with the Allman Brothers in Muscle Shoals in 1969.
A decade later, I played along with the song a hundred times on my Strat in my Mill Valley basement studio . At each drop of the needle, I waited patiently for the vocal to end, so I could I could play along with Duane’s passionate but nuanced solo. Among the finest blues guitarists ever, Duane had that rare combination of flash and reserve I so admire. And this song is arguably one of his best solos.
Many, many years have passed. Now, when I play this same cut in my Seattle basement studio, I listen carefully to Boz’s heartfelt vocal. When Duane comes in, I often find myself starting the song over. Maybe it’s that I’ve heard the lead so many times, that it no longer holds my attention so closely. Perhaps it’s that I hardly touch that old Strat of mine anymore. I’m much more about my acoustics. Or maybe it’s because I understand more clearly what the singer means when he says, “Somebody loan me a dime. I’ve got to call my old time used-to-be.”
Songwriting is the charmer’s art. When I first hear a song that moves me, I become thoughtlessly rude. My senses shift from whatever or whomever held my attention to the source. I am instantly captivated by a voice. A groove. A line of melody, A wave of harmony. Songs like John and Paul’s A Day in the Life, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, Joan Baez’ version of Tom Paxton’s There But By Fortune, Pentangle’s version of Lord Franklin, Jackson Browne’s Our Lady of the Well, Jimi’s take on All Along the Watchtower.
“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with people when you’re uncool.”
The quote is spoken by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous.
Click on the image below to see the clip:
As the essential element of music is rhythm, the essential element of the novel is yearning.
I can’t recall the last piece of furniture I bought for myself, but this chair spoke to me.
The chair was sitting in the store, its seat under the weight of a candelabra that had been left on it, as a matter of someone’s convince. The steel frame was elegant, yet sturdy and wrapped in leather that glowed like fresh caramel. As I lifted the candelabra, I could see the stitching done by a strong and steady hand. The back had straps like suitcases that people carried in the Age of Steam. With the leather, the straps and the stitching, the piece seems half-chair and half-journal. It occurs to me that furniture makers are, in their own tongue, storytellers. I liked this story, and I’m glad to have a copy in my home.
BTW, Steampunk enthusiasts may appreciate aspects of the chair as well as the steel and glass table in the background.
“You can not control what you do not measure.” It’s a phrase in business with murky origins. Someone is said to have coined it, but it seems that he was misquoted or a poorly paraphrased. Whatever the phrase’s beginnings, its meaning is profound.
There is a time to be unaware of one’s position: a dream, a moment of creation, a walk with the one you love. But I have discovered that if I do not gauge my progress, I am likely to make little of it. I count my pages now. I focus on milestones and personal deadlines. It’s made a huge difference in my writing. Everything counts, not with the same level of importance, but it matters nonetheless.
I got this picture of a Puli dog from my friend Lynette Chiang’s Facebook photos. She’s an amazing woman who travels the world with her bicycle and her open heart.
I was unhappy for a chunk of my life. During this period I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what was wrong with me. What could I do to be more productive? More centered? Calmer? Hours turned into days; days into weeks. The longer I struggled with my imperfections the less happy I became. I stopped writing.
I don’t remember a flash of understanding, but at some point I remembered from my days studying zoology that I am an animal. Animals have instincts, proclivities, skills and characteristics. Fish don’t fly. Birds don’t smell each other’s behinds. They just do what they do. The lucky ones seem to enjoy it, like this fabulous dog.
I’m reminded of ugly dog contests. California has several. The dogs I’m guessing have no idea that they’re the butt of jokes. They couldn’t care less. The winner gets the most attention. It’s a dog party. Everybody gets to be who they are.
The ugly dog contest became my metaphor. I’ll be the dog I am with the looks and talents and proclivities I have. How can I not be? Is it even possible? I’ll do what dogs like me do. What path could be better than that?
My life is better now. There are more ups now, though I do get down sometimes. When I do, I think of dogs at a party for dogs.
Ugly Dog Contest
And read Lynette’s book: The Handsomest Man In Cuba http://www.galfromdownunder.com/cuba/
Art is what you make when you’re not feeling cool. Not that feeling uncool is the basis for art, but that coolness – prevents the creation of real art. The reason is simple: You can’t be thinking about your image. Doing so creates a distance – a duality if you will, between you and the deeper thing you’re trying to express. There can be no such boundary. This is why art is so rare. I’ve only felt it a couple of times and even then, I’m not so sure.
Here’s the best expression I ever heard of this truth. It’s from Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, a story about the coming of age of a critic.
Lester Bangs: Aw, man. You made friends with them. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.
William Miller: Well, it was fun.
Lester Bangs: They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool.
William Miller: I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn’t.
Lester Bangs: That’s because we’re uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.
William Miller: I can really see that now.
Lester Bangs: Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love… and let’s face it, you got a big head start.
William Miller: I’m glad you were home.
Lester Bangs: I’m always home. I’m uncool.
William Miller: Me too!
Lester Bangs: The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.
William Miller: I feel better.
Lester Bangs: My advice to you. I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.
As I write my time travel story today, I’m reminded of a wonderful quote from Ridley Scott’s fine film Kindom of Heaven, written by William Monahan. Orlando Bloom plays Balian of Ibelin. Eva Green plays his love, Sybilla. There is a similar quote in The Kite Runner, but the sentiment is probably as old as human language.
The dialog comes at the very end of the film.
Sybilla: What becomes of us?
Balian of Ibelin: The world will decide. [Looking off.] The world always decides.
The full title of Homer’s epic poem is The Iliad: The Wrath of Achilles. It is an apt title for its books cover only the period of Achilles’ anger – not the journey to Troy nor its destruction. It occurred to me yesterday, as I navigate my own journey, that the failure of the Greeks to take Troy in a month was less the efforts of the Trojans than the Greeks to appease their own emotions. They spent ten years of slaughter, posturing and fighting amongst themselves before they finally admitted what they should have known from the beginning: They simply could not breach the city wall. They didn’t have the technology. The Spartans couldn’t take Athens until they had built a navy to capture the city by sea.
It wasn’t until the Greeks’s will was broken at Troy on the anvil of their own vanity and rage, and all hope had vanished that the mind of Odysseus, the wily, was clear enough to devise his plan of building the giant horse and hiding its greatest warriors inside. The Greeks could have easily done this following their first defeat. But pride and determination – qualities we ourselves revere – kept them from grasping the futility of their tactics.
How often is it that our willful denial negates our best efforts? How many times do we throw ourselves against walls instead of clearing our head of roiling emotions? And to turn the argument over and look at a word we think of as positive: How often is unmindful hope our undoing?
I wrote this song. The music came out of a dream that woke me up at 4 AM. In the dream, someone I loved wouldn’t return my call. She was on the run in some way, in a car “inside the rain.” She felt like she had done something wrong and wouldn’t come home.
Humming the tune I went down to my basement and played it in the key I heard in the dream. I only had the melody of the verse and the opening few lines. I added the chorus over the next few days and the other verses by the end of a month.
This video was done soon after I wrote it. The song brought me back to songwriting after decades of rarely touching a guitar.
©2010 Sperry Hunt
1. Call – I can’t call you, please
Call – I’ll be waiting for your
Call. From the darkened lane
In your car inside the rain.
2. If you call me, I’ll be there.
I’ll whisper “Baby” in your hair.
Feel my arms around you.
Pull me inside. Call.
I know why you run.
From what you might have done.
But this is not your world, my girl.
No one saw this heartbreak come.
No one saw this heartache come.
3. They’re empty days since you’ve been gone.
And every night is just so long.
Please don’t stay away.
I’ll bring you home with what I say.
4. I am the moonlight on your breast.
You are the stars in my chest.
Ten thousand miles from home
You don’t have to be alone.
5. My arms are strong. My eyes are bright.
I’ll keep them open for the night.
If you feel the same,
You will call me name.
6. I wait and wait for what is real,
For you to tell me how you feel.
A braver girl would say it all,
But she would call.
I had a wonderful time at Seattle Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night last evening. There’s little else that can better remind me of the truths in life than Shakespeare’s comedies. I had forgotten what a wonderful play this is. There is no fool like a wise fool, and none is wiser than Feast very ably played by Chris Ensweiler, who pokes great fun at the Puritans who, in Shakespeare’s time, waited in the wings with their sharp knives to fall on the bard’s ideals. Ensweiler, Carter Rodriquez and Sean Patrick Taylor made wonderful music on stage with dueling Spanish guitars and a lyrical mandolin. Ray Gonzales was terrific as Sir Toby Belch. He reminds me a bit of the able Powers Boothe, who could not possibly have done a better job. Gonzales captured Belch perfectly by affording him all the dignity the sod imagines he possesses. Everyone was wonderful, but most especially Susannah Millonzi whose heartbreaking earnestness brought my entire front-and-center row to tears in the last act. An uproarious comedy that can make the audience cry is a comedy indeed. Thanks once again, Seattle Shakespeare.