Wednesday, June 30, 2010


It’s Week Five of reading L.L. Barkat’s God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us, and I find myself engaged in understanding detachment.

“I heard it through a friend,” Barkat writes. “Someone had said of me, ‘She seems closed in her spirit.’ This was news. I always considered myself to be a fairly open person, thankful for life and its gifts. Still, this seemed to coincide with the cautious observation of another friend, ‘You’re kind of detached.’”

Ah, detachment. Oh, boy.

“Detached” is an attribute – or a description – often applied to me. My wife will not say I’m detached, but she will say “You’re not listening” or “You’re not engaged” or – most dreaded of all – “Tell me what I just said.”

To be honest, detachment is part of who I am, at least part of who I am at least part of the time.

I “learned” detachment in two ways in college journalism. First, it was the idea of objectivity, of trying to be objective and balanced and fair, a modernist concept that is no longer practiced in the journalism of a post-modern society. You were supposed to do your job with some sense of detachment, or you would not be able to do your job properly.

Second, I learned detachment sitting in the newsroom of the college newspaper, first as a copy editor and then as a managing editor. I had to detach myself from the noise and sound around me so that I could focus on writing and editing.

I never unlearned this second kind of detachment. I can block out thunderstorms and fire engine sirens if I need to focus on something.

My family refers to this as “Dad’s checked out.”

What happens – and is hard to explain – is that my mind tends to be constantly “on.” It’s on in the sense of making connections, seeing commonalities in things that seem very different, pulling out themes, seeing similar situations separated by years or even decades, and then playing all of this back, sometimes in a very different context.

What I’m describing, of course, is the mind of a writer. I don’t know if all writers do this, but there is some level of apparent detachment that masks an almost total engagement. It seems, and perhaps is, a contradiction, to be detached and engaged simultaneously. But that’s what happens.


Lament by Laura Boggess at The Wellspring.

A Storyteller First

My new post for Christian Manifesto, "A Storyteller First," is about author Travis Thrasher. Let me know what you think. I reviewed his latest novel Broken earlier this week.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Organizations and Bad Bosses

I learned very early that organizations will tolerate extremely bad behavior in bosses. I don’t know why, but they do.

Take Evelyn, for example (not the real name, and I may also have changed the gender).

A good writer, Evelyn was in her mid-30s and the speechwriter for the CEO, who valued and appreciated her work. Her scope of responsibilities was broadened to include a general executive communication function, with two writers and a secretary reporting to her. I was selected to be one of those writers, and I was thrilled – it was an elite writing group, and I was all of 24 at the time.

Things went well until the CEO retired. His replacement was very different. For my boss, what had been a warm, collegial relationship with one CEO became frosty, tense, and then combative with the new CEO. (A lesson for those who may not know: if you get into a combative situation with the CEO, you lose. Every time.) Everyone – Evelyn, her boss and even his boss – said this was a clear case of having to work with a difficult CEO.

But Evelyn’s insecurities began to surface. Her team experienced them first. She began to micro-manage everything, making the writing process increasingly painful and then erratic; the edits often made no sense. Then she began to arrive at work late or leave early, and sometimes not show up at all. Sometimes we could no longer wait for her to edit what we wrote and had to send drafts “upstairs” as they were. She never seemed to eat, but whispers about drinking were getting louder.

Her boss tolerated the increasingly odd and self-destructive behavior. It became so bad that I went to him and said she needed help (it was the right thing to do but not a wise career move – it implied that he wasn’t doing his job). He wasn’t pleased and said he was aware and taking care of it.

He wasn’t.

They moved the other writer to another team, but were reluctant to move me and the secretary. We were the department mainstays, and her boss was afraid that moving us would push her over the edge. Meanwhile, her disappearances were lasting longer. The cleaning crew refused to clean her office because of the smell.

Then came the day a senior executive asked where his speech draft was, the speech he was giving in three days. Evelyn’s boss came tearing into my office and asked if I was working on it. I didn’t even know one was due (and we had a calendar for speeches); Evelyn worked on this executive’s speeches herself. So her boss told me to come with him and we went to her office. You can imagine the scene – people seeing the commotion; the two of us entering her office; him shouting at people, including me, and demanding the secretary find the speech; and then the smell when we opened the door. It was ugly.

We tore her office apart looking – hoping – to find the speech. We found the memo from the executive requesting it. We also found old, moldy food and lots of empty beer and liquor bottles stashed in drawers and cabinets. The evidence of a personal tragedy was all around us.

He asked me what could be done; he had to see the executive at 9 the next morning. I took home what research I could find and spent the night writing the speech draft, finishing around 3 a.m. (I remember what it looked like – typed and hand-edited on the dull yellow paper we used for drafting; this was long before desktop computers.) When I got to work, I made a photocopy and had just returned to my desk when Evelyn’s boss arrived, asking if I’d been able to do anything. I handed him the speech draft. He didn’t say a word but left for the executive’s office.

Thirty minutes later, I was called to the executive’s office, with Evelyn’s boss nowhere around, and spent the rest of the morning and lunch working with him to get the speech finalized. His own secretary worked with us, typing his speaking draft. He didn’t trust it to leave the floor.

Another supervisor took over Evelyn’s job. She went on leave to get help. But the damage to many of the people involved, including her, and the damage to the department, was done.

This is what I learned. Never let a problem fester. When someone needs help, get it. Don’t assume a problem will run its course. Move fast. And understand that people who know better will turn a blind eye and hope the problem solves itself. Organizations have high tolerances for problem bosses.

The High Callings Blogs has a group writing project underway about bosses, and a summary will be published next week. If you’d like to write a post about a boss or bosses, you can participate by dropping your link here.

She Was Strong, This Woman

She was born in 1889 and died in 1985. Her life spanned horse-and-buggies and space shuttles. She was married at 15 to a man 10 years older than she was; she had five children and buried one.

She was strong, this woman.

I met her when she was 62, but I wouldn’t remember her until I was about three. My earliest memories of her were warm, embracing and musical. She played piano by ear; she never learned to read music. She sang with her church choir and she sang solos, including one she did for her 90th birthday.

For several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I spent a week each summer with her at her house in Shreveport. It was a magical place for me. My aunt and uncle lived across the street; my half-sister less than 10 minutes away; and there was a boy exactly my age who lived next door. And for each visit, I flew Delta Airlines by myself – a huge deal for an 8-year-old in 1960.

She drove an old black Ford, a sedan from the early 1940s. We’d tool around Shreveport – shopping, visiting downtown, stopping by the Louisiana State Museum at the state fairgrounds so I could see the cool dioramas. And it was inevitable that she would take a short cut through a poor part of town and equally inevitable that the Ford would break down somewhere along the way. She’d tell me to stay in the car, and she would go to the nearest house to ask to use the phone.

My grandfather had died when I was nine months old. She talked about him like he was still there in the house with us. She wanted me to know him, but I think she did it as much for herself as for me. They had met when he had stayed at the boarding house in Jena, Louisiana, owned by her mother. He was a land surveyor, working for the railroad. He married her in spite of her tobacco-chewing mother, and in spite of the rumors that her mother had killed a man.

When my grandmother was 5, her mother had put her to work in the cotton mills. She had no formal education, but she was fully literate and read her Bible every day. (I have this image in my head of her reading her Bible while her mother pinged the spittoon with used tobacco.) She taught a ladies Sunday School class for decades and I can remember her writing out her lesson on Friday and Saturday in a small, black two-ringed binder.

She was strong, this woman.

She endured the loss of her youngest, a little girl who got sick and didn’t get well. Two of her children (my father and his youngest sister) didn’t speak to each other for more than 40 years; how that must have grieved her. I can remember being in her living room one summer when the door opened and in walked the aunt I had never met, who looked like a younger version of my aunt across the street. We stared at each other. She was as shocked as I was – she didn’t expect to see what looked like her brother as a child standing in the living room.

My grandmother made all of her grandchildren feel like she loved them the most (although I knew I was really her favorite). She sent her only son off to the war in the Pacific. She stifled herself (mostly) when her son decided to raise her grandson in that den of iniquity called New Orleans, yet she loved to visit. I know she prayed for me from the day I was born until the day she died. Raised by a mother who was likely her polar opposite, she was strong in her faith and strong in her love for her Lord.

She was strong, this woman.

To read more posts on strength, visit the One Word Blog Carnival hosted by Bridget Chumbley.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Travis Thrasher's "Broken"

What a ripping good story this is.

Laila Torres works at a bank in Greenville, South Carolina. A co-worker, Kyle, is interested in her. She is clearly a beautiful woman. She keeps discouraging Kyle. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t know her past. But her past is about to catch up with Laila, Kyle and just about anyone else associated with her.

And it’s a past that only gradually unfolds, adding layer upon layer to Laila’s story, a story that begins with one fact: she shot and killed a man.

Or did she?

The twelfth novel of author Travis Thrasher, Broken is a wonderfully crafted story of a woman haunted by her past, chased by the brother of the man she believes she killed, and pursued by her own conscience. The story moves from Chicago to New York to Greenville and finally to post-Katrina New Orleans, the perfect “broken” setting for a broken woman running from a broken life. Thrasher sustains the growing tension of the story by allowing Laila herself to finally face what she’s truly been running from, what she cannot forgive herself for but only can be supernaturally forgiven.

“Broken” is a great story. Thrasher has written a series of suspenseful, sometimes terrifying but always satisfying and even provocative stories, and this one is one of his best.

The Practice of Writing

I live a life that’s saturated in words.

At work, a large part of what I do is to write. I write articles, posts for the company blog, posts for the employee blog, presentations, plans, speeches.


Outside of work, I have this blog, occasional guests posts on other blogs, a regularly scheduled feature over at Christian Manifesto, scheduled posts for The High Calling Blogs, the co-editing of TweetSpeak Poetry’s jams on Twitter, and comments on others’ blogs.


And then there’s the “novel project” or I should say “novel projects” because there are approximately three going on in my head – interior conversations, scenes, plots and somehow I’m keeping them separate. I hope.

Lots of words.

And I haven’t even started on the reading of words.

I love all of this. Every bit.

What all this writing of words has forced me to do is be disciplined. I have deadlines at work and self-imposed deadlines for the writing outside of work.

One particular piece of writing has also allowed me to see what I do in a different way. The editing of the “Twitter poems” at TweetSpeak Poetry is among the most difficult things I’ve done. You assemble 400 or 500 tweets, sometimes more, depending upon the number of participants. You then arrange them by where they “touch” each other – where one tweeted line is a response or amplification or transition from another. Participants add their lines in different ways – some jump right in with an almost stream of consciousness/word association approach and others take time to ponder and shape. And sometimes participants do both.

So the words and lines have to be teased and coaxed and studied and understood and associated. Sometimes the fit is automatically perfect; sometimes the fit has to be “edited.” And sometimes I have to add lines and words to bring some coherence to a poem.

It’s a fascinating exercise. It is also a kind of practice with words, ideas and themes.

In The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, Julia Cameron says that writing rewards practice – and I would add that practice rewards writing. “”Writing rewards attention,” she says. “Writing…remains a gateway to greater mystery, a way to touch something greater than ourself. Writing is an act of cherishing. It is an act of love.”

That’s it, exactly.

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess is leading a discussion of Cameron’s The Right to Write. Take a look and see what others are saying, commenting and posting. Last week’s discussion was about making it, honesty and vulnerability. This week‘s discussion is about footwork, practice and containment.


Julia Found Words for Me by L.L. Barkat.

Savoring Life by Nancy Kourmoulis.

Cassandra Frear’s Like Water on a Stone.

Sweeping by Marilyn.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Saturday Good Reads

I took a look at the entries for this Saturday feature for the last few weeks, and I learned something about myself (lists like this often tell you more about the “list-maker” than the “list-ees).

I like stories. I like stories about fathers and about children. I like surprise twists and unusual endings. I like good writing. I lean to the emotional. Postings by some of the same people regularly show up, but the mix does change.

I’ve also added a new section – paintings and photographs. There’s some stunning stuff. (And if you’d like to follow art and the arts in general online on a regular basis, there’s no better source than Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.) (Yes, that's a ringing endorsement.)


Life is a Memorial” by Jay Cookingham at Soulfari.

The Work of All Kids: How to Forgive Our Parents” by Ann Voskamp for (In)Courage.

Letting Go to Let God” and “Love, That Many Splendored Thing” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Sundays Are for Washing Cars” by Michelle DeRusha at Graceful.

An Old Man’s Theory” and “Life Turns on Small Decisions” by Duane Scott.

Pornography of the Poor” by John Blasé at Dirty Shame.

The Train Case” by Harriet Gillham at The Other Side of the Mountain.

Waking Up from Ghana” by Laura Bramon Good at The Image Journal.

Anatomy of a Treasure Hunt” by Billy Coffey.

Tips from a publicist – of sorts” by Kathy Richards for Author Culture.

When His Future Steps Into Him” by Tamara at Living Palm.

Underneath a Faded Quilt” by Carrie Burtt at Hope Whispers.

Oil Spills and God Talk – Part 1” by Brian Volck at The Image Journal.

Changing Your Mind” by Shawn Smucker.

Stories to be Written” by Jason Stasyszen at Connecting to Impact.

The Heart of the Matter,” by Jeff Jordan at To My Children, If They Are Listening.

Moments Become Memories” by Michael Perkins at Untitled.

It Feels Like Church” by Jessica McGuire at Jezamama.


That Hollywood Sparkle” and "Extinction's Shadow" by Rob Kistner at Image & Verse.

Daddy’s Girl” by Laura Boggess at The Wellspring.

Stuff of Stiff Necks and Egos” by Kathleen Overby at Almost Paradisical.

Taliessen and the Division of the Table” and “Revolving Helix” by Justinian at Delight and Glory and Oddity and Light.

Elegy” by Hadassah Fey at Umbra Vitae.

The June Poem” by Bob Spencer at Wilderness Fandango.

If you” by Melissa at All the Words.

Jack, a Poem that Tells the Real Story of jack the Ripper” by Peter Marshall.

The Lioness” by Heather Truett at Madame Rubies Writes.

The Night Beneath the Moon” by Leslie Moon at Moondustwriter.

This is the Way That Little Girl Lived” by Karen Eck at Phoenix-Karenee.

Break the Fast” By Sandra Heska King at Beholding God.

Paintings and Photos

Photoplay: Frame It” by Kelly Sauer.

Understory,” oil on canvas by Randall David Tipton.

Deep Current” by Karen Eck at Phoenix-Karenee.

Father’s Day” by Steve Gravano at Take A Look Around.

No Weight” and “Framing the Sacred” by Jezamama.

Between Blooms” by Melissa at The Far Blue Hills.

Pressing On,” “Framed by Provision” and “Eye of the Beholder” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

Photograph: Lamp, by Nancy Rosback at Poems and Prayers. Used with permission.

Friday, June 25, 2010

False Indigo

Baptisia Australis, false
indigo its common name,
a kind of memorial to austral
Carolina when darkened hands
tilled and harvested and keened
the fields, fields now fallow,
abandoned to the wildness of forest or
wildness of forest suburban.

False indigo knobs early, small
green stalagmites thrusting like
cigars from the soil before branching
into green stems, stems that splash
purple-blue, turning to pods that dry
and darken, rattling in the wind like
maracas until they rupture an
infant baptism of seed.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Pleasantly and Randomly Disturbed Thursday

My online friend Duane Scott has started a feature on his blog called Pleasantly Disturbed Thursdays, in which he posts a bunch of random thoughts. Then Helen over at Random Musings joined him this week, and I thought, oh, what the heck, why not?

Given the insufferable summer heat caused, no doubt, by global warming, I had planned to do an early morning bike ride today. The weather forecast was partly cloudy. At 5:30 a.m., I went outside and looked at what the Weather Service calls partly cloudy – huge black thunderclouds threatening a deluge at any moment. Not promising for a bike ride. So I didn’t. Naturally, there was no rain, and it turned sunny 40 minutes later – too late to do the ride. Sigh.

My almost-14-year-old dog gets his second flu vaccine shot tonight. He can barely get up and down stairs (I carry him up) and I’m worried about the canine flu, which hasn’t hit Missouri yet but is in all the surrounding states.

I’m almost finished reading Broken by Travis Thrasher. A big chunk of the novel is set in my hometown of New Orleans post-Katrina and I can tell that Thrasher has done his research. And I’m getting too old to read books that keep you on the edge of your seat.

This morning, I read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a great column by sportswriter Bernie Miklasz on the USA-Algeria World Cup game yesterday; the editorial and op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, noting a column I wanted to circulate at work; an article in the Churchill Memorial Library’s magazine about the great-grandson of Winston Churchill visiting the place (it’s in Fulton, Missouri, home of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and it’s a gem of a library and museum – first class); a book review in Modern Reformation Magazine about Liberty University; and a poem posted at Pete Marshall’s web site about Jack the Ripper. I’m nothing if not eclectic.

People who comment on my blog posts write better comments than I write blog posts. I keep learning that over and over again.

If I tweet your blog post it means I’ve read it first. And if I retweet someone else’s tweet of your blog post, it means I read it first. My motto is -- verify, then tweet.

We have two weddings to attend this weekend. We’ve already attended three and have another one in July. And several baby showers (well, my wife has attended the baby showers). This seems to be the year for weddings and babies.

Have I told you about my grandson Cameron? Lately?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Grief Makes the Way for the Joy

L.L. Barkat doesn’t ask this exact question in God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us, but suggests something very much like it: Can we experience joy without experiencing grief? And if we cut off our capacity for experiencing grief, are we also curtailing our capacity for joy? That’s a thought she cites from poet David Whyte, author of books of poetry like House of Belonging and even business books like The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. (L.L. and I both like Whyte’s poems and his writings on business.)

To consider grief and joy in the same context, I need to recall no more than the year 1987, one of those watershed years where so much happens that you come out on the other side of it changed forever. It was the year of three deaths and a birth.

On Saturday, March 7, I came home from running errands to find my wife in tears and our next-door neighbor sitting with her. Our then 7-year-old was outside playing. A call had come from New Orleans – my father had suffered a stroke and was unconscious in the hospital. It took two airline flights to get to Louisiana – two late planes, missed connections, finally getting to Baton Rouge and taking a taxi to New Orleans 75 miles away.

He did not recover from the stroke. It was massive. On Sunday, the family gathered at the hospital, talked with the doctors, and decided to remove him from the machines that were keeping his body functioning. He died early the next morning. He left behind a business that was a mess, unpaid bills, troubled relations with one of my brothers, a life insurance policy he had neglected to pay the last premium on, stacks of old traveler’s checks locked in a box under the bed – all kinds of strange and unexpected things. I was the executor of the estate, and made my first priority salvaging enough assets for my mother to live on until Social Security would start the following year.

There was too much to do and no time to grieve. The fact that he was gone would hit me with a huge wallop more than two years later.

Three months after my father’s death, the church where I was elder embarked upon a building program that was misguided and possibly disastrous. I tried to stand in the breach but was mowed down. People were upset with me – elder boards are supposed to vote unanimously. The action went forward and I resigned from the board, which caused another round of upset. Within a few short weeks, events proved me right. Fortunately the program was not far enough along to cause major financial damage, but it could have destroyed the church. It was small comfort to be proven right when relationships had been irrevocably shattered.

Three months after that, work blew up. I had been pouring heart and soul into work, and then a political move happened, an undeserved promotion was made, and an entire department disintegrated. It was a bitter lesson to learn about corporate life – performance, achievement, and results ultimately did not matter as much as being a favorite of a vice president. A job was open in another division – a job no one wanted because it dealt with issues and mess – that I applied for and got it. It looked like a crazy career move – to go from the high-flying division to an old traditional and rather dowdy one.

The year of three deaths – my father, my relationships at church and seemingly my career.

At the end of December came the joy – the birth of our second child, another boy. You can look at the photographs we have of that Christmas (my wife started labor on Christmas Day) and you can see the exhaustion and grief in our faces. It had been a hard year, but it was a year that was ending right, ending joyfully.

The tidal wave of grief that engulfed us that year actually allowed us, and me in particular, to experience the joy.


Sky Stories by Laura Boggess at The Wellspring.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Pelican

I don’t do political stuff on this blog. I’m not interested in being a political commentator. I have opinions, and some strong ones, and probably better reasoned ones that I see paraded in what passes for political commentary in the newspaper, but my great ambition in life has never been to be a political pundit. And I’m not starting now.

I’m fairly conservative. No big surprise there. I’m not far right, but I’m definitely – on average – right of center. Some of my beliefs don’t fall to the right – I’m no great fan of the death penalty, for example – but – on average – I hew to the conservative side of things.

I considered myself a Republican, and voted that way, for most of my adult life. Until Aug. 29, 2005, or actually just a few days after Aug. 29, 2005, as the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfolded in my home state of Louisiana, my home town of New Orleans and the neighboring Mississippi Gulf Coast. I spent four days getting my then 83-year-old mother and then 87-year-old aunt out of the city. My older brother, who lives in a Louisiana parish (county) adjacent to Mississippi, was not heard from for a week after the storm. Family was scattered all over the United States.

The federal government, led by the Bush Administration, proved to be inept when it came to responding to the disaster. As columnist George Will wrote at the time, whatever else you wanted to say about Republicans, they were supposed to be competent. In the early days after the storm, the White House political strategists and PR people were more interested in making sure the President had plenty of staged “photo ops” to blunt the criticism he’d received.

People were dying on the streets of New Orleans, and the White House was worried about photo ops. I had stomached Tom Delay, and I had stomached the Republican spending binge. But it was the photo ops that broke it. I couldn’t stomach it any longer.

Now it’s another political party, another administration, and another catastrophe affecting my home state of Louisiana. Eleven men died. The environmental disaster continues to unfold. Whole industries are being destroyed. And the CEO of BP goes yachting and the President of the United States wants to “kick ass” but not before he goes golfing, for the 39th time since he took office, already more than his predecessor did in eight years in office.

On Sunday evening, C-Span showed a remarkable video of the president of Plaquemines Parish (south of New Orleans) calmly telling visitors how the government and BP have together made a bad situation far, far worse. The video is 35 minutes long, and it is a devastating indictment.

Rod Dreher at BeliefNet, a native Louisianan now living in Philadelphia, waxed hot today about the story in the New York Times that suggests longstanding collusion between BP and the federal government as a major contributing cause to the explosion and inability to control the well afterward. BP has also been one of the leading proponents of President Obama’s cap-and-trade energy proposals. Not that politics has anything to do with this, of course.

And three weeks ago, Democratic "operative" James Carville ripped into the Obama Administration for its response to the oil spill; I never thought I would agree with anything Carville ever said (other than he loves LSU), but I agreed with him here.

Disasters happen. Life is full of risks. As we’re learning from BP and our federal government, life is also full of gross incompetence. People die. Environments are destroyed. But our leaders will have their photo ops and their golf games, and the worst part is that they don’t see anything wrong with what they're doing. Or not doing. I'm outraged. And I'm heartsick.

There’s no albatross around the neck of the federal government this time. There’s an oil-soaked brown pelican, this time.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Voice: Get Over It

“A writing voice is not a collection of ticks and tricks,” says Julia Cameron in The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. “A writing voice is a vehicle for communication. The individuality of a voice emerges not by falling in love with your own facility but by learning to move past it. Too much cleverness gets in the way of real writing and real thought.”

There it is. Voice.

And some good advice to get over it.

“Voice” has become something of a holy grail for writers, much like “platform” has become a holy grail for publishers. Writers have to have a distinct voice, an individual voice and (above all else) a marketable voice. And we don’t really know how to define it. Is it style? Is it verve? Is it like Hemingway or Steinbeck or Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor? The answer is yes, but that’s not very helpful. And while we can’t really define it, we “know it when we see it.”

When it comes to my own writing, I don’t pay attention to voice. Perhaps I should. But I don’t. I’ve never paid much attention to voice. I’ve heard about it, of course, and a lot. I’ve been told about it. People have even told me what mine is.

In college, all history courses required to use “blue books,” light blue paper booklets for writing answers to essay questions. My first essay test in U.S. history came back from the grader with this note: “Nice essay.” I remember my exact reaction. I didn’t immediately analyze what it was that had prompted her remark. No, I thought something far more mundane. “She’s so relieved that there’s an occasional essay that’s legible and coherent that she’ll say nice things and go easy with the grade.” OK, so I was a bit mercenary (look, I was a college student who needed to pass this required course).

My first Introduction to News Reporting assignment came back with “not bad for a cub” scrawled across the top. That was the first and only time this particular teacher made a comment like that on one of my assignments. No explanation; the grade, if I recall, was a B+. But I was thrilled that he liked it – he was one tough grader and would drive 70 percent of the class to drop the course before mid-term.

The next (and one of the last) comments like this I can recall happened in 1983. I had been in a new job at work for several months when my boss unexpectedly said one day, “I like your writing style.” And then he went on to describe it. I was surprised and – naturally – flattered. But I hadn’t really thought it before then. And I didn’t think much about it after that. I nodded and went on.

I don’t think voice is something that can be taught or learned. It’s something you’re born with, and something that’s shaped by your life experiences. That means that, for each of us, it’s different. We can teach and study the mechanics of writing, but no one can teach “voice.”

For writers, that’s like someone trying to teach us “soul.” Voice, like soul, belongs to each of us, and for each of us, it’s different. Julia Cameron’s right: just move past it.

Over at The High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess has been leading Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write. Last week, the discussion was about making it, honesty and vulnerability. This week’s discussion is about dailiness, voice and form versus formula.


Stuck by Nancy Kourmoulis.

An Accidental Post While Watering the Garden by L.L. Barkat.

Cassandra Frear's Dailiness.

Finding Your Writing Voice on Twitter by L.L. Barkat for The High Calling Blogs.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saturday Good Reads

It was an easy week to find good things to read online. Bridget Chumbley hosted the One Word Blog Carnival on compassion, and all of the linked posts are worth reading (a few are cited below). A lot of poetry seemed to break out this week, and I only included some of what I found.


Deprivation” by Brenda Porter at Poetry, Fiction and Stuff.

Holy Lost” by John Blasé at Dirty Shame.

Desire Unfulfilled” (flash fiction) by Leslie Moon at Moondustwriter.

Hither,” “Unanswerable” and “Before Time” by Melissa at All the Words.

The Gift” by Rob Kistner at Image & Verse.

Reapers” by Jean Toomer at Eye of H.

Date Nights Without Movies” by Fred Sprinkle at I Force It to Rhyme.

Sandal-Walls” by Monica Sharman at Know-Love-Obey God.

The Complexity of Compassion” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

To our new democratic overlord” and “Taliessen on Salisbury Plain” by Justinian at Delight and Glory and Oddity and Light.

Emptying of Emptiness” by Karen Eck at Phoenix-Karenee.

Compassion” by Nancy Rosback at Poems and Prayers

Age of Serenity” by Jonahh Oestreich at Jonahh’s Blackbox.

Pretence” by Claire Burge.

Heart Racing” by Kathleen Overby at Almost Paradisical.


Going Batty” by Sandra Heska King at Beholding God.

Sometimes It’s Just Plain Hard” by Denise Spencer at Internet Monk.

God Goes Viral” by Mike Duran at deCompose.

Change is Possible” and “Awkward Compassion” by Duane Scott.

Courage Is Part of the Adventure” and “Adjusting to What Is” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

The Way We Were” by Madison Richards at The Master’s Artist.

Compassion in the Cold” by Billy Coffey – and read it together with “Compassion for a Passion” by Kathy Richards. Also Billy’s “Stronger Than Chocolate.”

45 Minutes – Going Off Script” and “Why Daddies Are Worth Remembering – Even I f You don’t Have One” by Bonnie Gray at Faith Barista.

Wash” by Kelly Sauer at A Restless Heart.

An Open Letter” by Kathy Richards.

Hearing the Melody” by Andy Whitman at The Image Journal.

Tommy Walnuts” by Greg Sullivan at Sippican Cottage.

Paintings and Photos

Storm Break on the River” by Randall David Tipton.

Hill and Bees” by Nancy Rosback.

Mailbox Angst” by Susan Etole at Just…A Moment.

Photograph: Lamp by Nancy Rosback. Used with permission. (Nancy says the lamp in the photo belonged to her grandmother, and then her father. Nancy's child used it to go to sleep by as a baby.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Marybeth Whalen's "The Mailbox"

It’s a mailbox, and it sits on a beach on an island off the coast of North Carolina. Its owner is the Kindred Spirit, whoever that might be. The locals know it to be a place where messages can be written, feelings poured out, stories told on paper and left for the Kindred Spirit to read.

Lindsey Adams placed her first message there when she was 15 and visiting relatives for the summer, having fallen in love with a local boy, Campbell Forrester. She will place a letter in the mailbox each year for the next 20 years, through love, Campbell’s betrayal, college, finding new love, marriage, children and then divorce. Campbell has lived his own life apart from Lindsey, a life that includes a forced marriage, a daughter, abandonment by his wife and then divorce. He hears she’s back on the island; she knows he’s there, too.

In The Mailbox, first novelist Marybeth Whalen weaves a story of second chances and re-found love. It’s a road that’s anything but smooth. She tells their history and their present in alternating chapters, until the overall story merges into one.

The reader knows how the story has to end (this is a romance, after all; you know how it better end or you’re going to have to have a serious talk with the author), but Whalen keeps you guessing with enough twists and turns that what could have been predictable instead becomes intriguing. It’s a sweet story, a moving story, and a good first novel for Whalen.

Note: I received this book from the publisher and/or publisher's agent for review purposes.


Marybeth Whalen is interviewed on the novel over at Novel Journey.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Singing in the Wilderness

I’ve been reading God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us by L.L. Barkat, and one of the suggested exercises is to spend up to an hour in the yard every day for a week, simply sensing the world, perhaps lying on a blanket.

I didn’t do that. I have neighbors.

“Hey, Young! Whatcha up to?”

“I’m lying on a blanket for an hour.”

“I can see that, but why? Getting a suntan?”

“No, I’m sensing the world. Contemplating. Thinking.”

“Oh, doing nothing, huh? Well, you might want to know that the rabbits are chewing right through your zinnias.”

There was one element of this, though, that attracted my eye when I read it. “So let yourself go,” writes Barkat, “the way the Psalmist David probably did all those days and nights in the fields…and in so doing, heard the murmurs of God.”

There it was – a picture, a picture of being like David, out in the valleys, fields and caves, climbing in the mountains and crossing deserts – all to hide from Saul and his men. Hiding for his life. Long periods of isolation and separation, punctuated by short bursts of activity and (occasionally) confrontation.

What struck me as I saw this reference to David was that we know what he did while he wandered those places.

He sang songs.

And he wrote poetry.

We know this because we have the song poems in the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament, 70 of which are identified as “of David” and seven specifically identified as from the time of this “wilderness” period.

His life threatened, living in harsh conditions, exposed to all kinds of weather, chased by Saul and his soldiers, David wrote poetry. Beautiful poetry. Even in English translation from the Hebrew, the beauty of David’s psalms shines through, and has done so for 3,000 years. It’s also entered our collective consciousness with such phrases as “the valley of the shadow of death” (a write would have written “the valley of death;” a poet would write “the valley of the shadow of death”).

That such beauty came from David’s “dark night of the soul” is indeed something to contemplate and wonder.

Related: Celebration by Laura Boggess at The Wellspring.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

If My Father Had Written This

Daughter, three sons, three
families jumbled, never
quite sewn or woven as if the
tailor needed to
practice first. Yet stitches held,
my fingerprints an impression,
my hands a touch, a shape.

With limited and partially
incoherent knowledge, I laid out
the paths for each. Four
predictions, failed. Four charted
courses, not taken. I was as wrong
as my father before me. They were
mists, slipping through my arms.

baby’s cry her mother’s leaving us first Sunday dress first day of school then Helen and her girl watching over mine because we were married and I had the war Navy Pacific kamikazes coming at us all the time every day Hawaii Phillipines Shanghai Okinawa Discharge Helen gone with someone else so to New Orleans and magazines on shrimp and boats and fish I hated fishing but it was a living she was sitting outside my office typing telling me about her son and her first marriage so we did my third her second a new baby boy

who didn’t talk like any of us no Southern no Nawlins accent and restless moved to Florida my dad died so back to New Orleans and the shrimp and fish and boats so I started my own business printing and mailing and I didn’t see the kids for weeks on end they became strangers I’d try but it didn’t work well she made me take him who shared my name to the French Quarter for his birthday I couldn’t help it it was five months late but we did it after she and I fought because I needed to go to work that Saturday

new son came late I was 45 when I finally had time they didn’t and were gone to school to college to Texas to Michigan to Missouri it all slips by and grandchildren strangers I didn’t know but I loved them and always work and work and back to work good provider always but the business never really turned a profit negative cash flow I’m just having my coffee and cigarette it’s Saturday morning and I have to go into work the pain shoots up my leg and arm and the very last thing I will ever say is call 9-1…

I had my three score and ten,
just a bit more, in fact, and it
was too soon and too late, too
soon to finish what needed
ending, too late to mend what
was torn. But it was sufficient.
It was enough.


Wishing All the Pins Had Held by Ann Kroeker for the High Callings Blogs.

When Your Work Isn't Working

Twice in my life, I’ve found myself in work situations that were what I call my “wilderness years.” Those are those perplexing, maddening, frustrating, depressing times when there’s either no work at all, or when your skills and talents are being seriously underutilized...

To read the rest of this post, please visit the High Calling Blogs, "When Your Work Isn't Working."

Monday, June 14, 2010


A few months ago, my friend David Murray posted on his blog about tears – and how he was noticing that the older he became, the more easily the tears seemed to flow.

David’s in his early 40s. I told him to wait until his 50s – when the real waterworks begin. Although, to be honest, I’ve always been prone to that most embarrassing of male actions – unexpectedly crying.

I cry at movies, both sad ones and the sappy parts of happy ones. I cry at moving passages of novels. I get teary-eyed with certain YouTube videos (like the ones that show the fathers/soldiers returning home from Iraq or Afghanistan and surprising their kids at school) (I get teary-eyed just writing about how teary-eyed I get with these). I read newspaper stories – like how the small church in Arkansas opened its doors to the families who lost relatives in the recent flash flooding at the park campsite – and my eyes fill.

Fortunately, my wife is used to it. But it’s embarrassing at work when I read something online that moves me to tears and then someone walks in my office.

There’s a good precedent.

Almost all of the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John is devoted to the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Very few miracles recorded in the New Testament get that kind of emphasis. And the pivotal verse of that chapter is v. 35, which also happens to be the shortest verse in the entire Bible.

Jesus wept.

That two-word verse is stunning. The creator of the universe did that most human of things, a thing often perceived (in males) as weakness – he wept.

The context is important, if a bit ambiguous. He sees Mary, sister of Martha, weeping at the death of her brother. He sees the Jews who are with Mary also weeping. And he is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (NIV). Still, he doesn’t cry at that point. He asks where the body of Lazarus is, and when the crowd says “come and see,” that’s when he cries. Then once more he’s “deeply moved” as he comes to the tomb. He prays, and tells Lazarus to come out. Some immediately believe; others rush off to report to the Pharisees and the chief priests, who decide that the time for Jesus to die has finally come.

As for his tears, was it the weeping of Mary and the crowd that prompted Jesus to share their grief? Was it the lack of belief in what Jesus was truly about that the crowd didn’t understand? Was it facing the death and the tomb of someone he dearly loved? Or was it seeing a picture of his own future before him, knowing what lay ahead – betrayal, beatings, the most horrible of deaths called crucifixion and then death? Yes, he knew the ultimate ending, but that didn’t prevent feeling the deepest emotions at what he was facing.

What is clear is that, in this case, he did the one thing he always resisted doing – he deliberately gave the crowd a sign. He raised Lazarus from the dead “that they may believe you sent me.”

It’s all there in two words, the whole story of his life, death and resurrection, the most astonishing story of compassion ever, told in tears, the tears that are a sign for us, a sign to me of what my own tears should remind me of.

Jesus wept.

To read more posts on compassion, visit Bridget Chumbley’s blog One Word at a Time.

Photo of man crying courtesy Photobucket.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Telling It True

Once, many years ago, I was asked by a reporter if I had ever lied for the company I then worked for. Most of my career has been spent in public affairs or public relations, and given what many think of as public relations, the question was understandable.

I could truthfully answer no. I had not then, nor have I ever, lied for a company I worked for or a client I’ve represented. First, my faith says it’s not an option. Second are the general ethical considerations. And third, the fact is that your credibility and reputation are all you have when you’re in PR. Blow that once, and you’ve blown it forever. And the field is littered with examples.

What the reporter didn’t ask, however, was if I had ever been asked to lie. Now that would have been an interesting, and complicated, answer. No one has ever asked me to "Please lie about this." But I have heard "Don't bring that up," "There's a problem there," "Tell them not to ask that question," or some other variation. I've never been directly asked to lie, but I have been asked not to tell the story -- the whole story.

This week, I was reminded of that reporter’s question so many years ago when I was reading Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. She has a chapter on honesty in writing, and while she never mentions public relations, the same principles apply.

“The emotional courage of an artist counts for a lot with me,” she writes. “I can live with the rough edges, with an occasional wince as something cuts too close to the bone. What I do not want to live with is writing that is false, slick, or processed like the faux marble that is used to tone up nouveau riche hotels.

“There is something about the truth – like something about a great plain pine table – that has a beauty and clarity that shine for me beyond the frequent artifice of High Art.”

When I write – no matter if it’s for work or for myself – I’m mostly concerned with telling the story. Readers (or listeners, if it’s a speech) can usually tell whether a story is true or not – and I mean “true” in the sense of resonating with human experience. People may or may not know if a story is factually correct, but they usually know if it’s true to what they know and understand.

A good example of this is the stories told by Billy Coffey. I read his stories, and I can’t tell you they are factually correct, because I don’t personally know the people he writes about. But I can tell you that his stories are profoundly true, because I recognize them from what I know and understand about people. Billy doesn’t write like “faux marble;” he writes like that great plain pine table, straight from the heart.

That, to me, is what honesty is writing is about. It’s not only the story you’re trying to tell. It’s also telling it true, from the heart, allowing it to tell itself.

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess is leading a discussion of Cameron’s The Right to Write. Take a look and see what others are saying, commenting and posting. Last week’s discussion was about credibility, place and happiness. This week’s discussion is about making it, honesty and vulnerability.


No Matter What by Nancy Kourmoulis.

Cassandra Frear's The Edge of Glory.

Sandal-Walls by Monica Sharman.

Jessica McGuire's Pink Elephant.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Saturday Good Reads

This list is somewhat longer than usual -- so many good things to read, so little time.


Gotta Give It Some Thought” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Adam and…Who?” by Christy at Notable Blogger.

Theology From Baseball” by Sarah Salter.

Flags and Fractions” by Lainie Gallagher.

The Perfect Game,” "Pretending" and "Your Story" by Billy Coffey.

Spielberg’s Godly Sniper” by Patton Dodd at The Image Journal.

Government Flunks the Test of Trust in the Gulf” by Ron Fournier of Associated Press.

I Failed Him” by Tim Challies at Informing the Reforming.

Taking the Plunge” and "Returning the Favor" by Duane Scott.

How to Raise Geniuses” by Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience.

That other loud and accidental point of time” by Kelly Foster at The Image Journal.

He Does Me In” by Jessica McGuire for the MOB (Mothers of Boys) Society.

Broken” by Doug Spurling at Spurling Silver.

PBS Makes Me Desperate to See a Video Game Orchestra” by Keith Wilson at The Robotto-Mulatto.

Strength” by Bridget Chumbley.

Faith Heroes – The Passing of Greatness” by Jay Cookingham at Soulfari.

Wiki-Culture” by David Griffith at The Image Journal.

Prose and Video

Priscilla Ahn “Dares to Dream” by Jeanne Damoff for The Master’s Artist.


See This Heart” by Nancy Rosback at Poems and Prayers.

The Grove: A Poem Dedicated to a Street Near You” and "The Scarecrow and the Cougar" by Pete Marshall.

Volcano” by Milton Brasher-Cunningham at Don’t Eat Alone.

Where Laughing Gulls Hover” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Unready” and “Midnight Words” by Karen Eck at Phoenix-Karenee.

Catch a Falling Star” and “On Waking Up” by Melissa at All the Words.

Day’s Last Light” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Romanitas,” “At the silent doors of night,” and “Slaying the Old Man” by Justinian at Delight and Glory and Oddity and Light.

The Raven and the Crow,” Poem of the Day at Men Shall Know Nothing of This.

Anger – 3 Contemplations” by Rob Kistner at Image & Verse.

Photograph: Lamp, by Nancy Rosback. Used with Permission.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What I'm Reading This Summer

This week, I finished reading Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman and The Mailbox by Marybeth Whalen. I have whittled the pile of “to read” down a little bit, but here’s still a fairly ambitious stack. Or actually, two stacks, to be precise. And a few on a shelf.

Here’s the list:


The Apple Trees at Olema by Robert Hass.
Lighthead by Terence Hayes.
Imagination and The Written Word by Shaun Masterton.
The Hidden Life and Fault Lines by T.M. Moore.
Open Ground by Seamus Heaney.


Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott.
Crossing Oceans by Gina Holmes.
Mending String by Cliff Coon.
The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt.


Rooms by James Rubart.
Forget Me Not by Vicki Hinze.
Broken by Travis Thrasher.


Parting the Waters by Jeanne Damoff.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio.
Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef.
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll.


God in the Yard by L.L. Barkat.
The Ailbe Psalter by T.M. Moore.
The Cross Gardener by Jason Wright.

Ambitious, yes. But a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?


My Spring Reading Thing by Cheryl Smith, who’s still trying to catch up on her spring reading.

Dan King’s 7 Fascinating Books.

A Sort of Summer Reading List by L.L. Barkat.

Summer Reading by Heather at Madame Rubies Writes.

Ann Kroeker's Ambitious Summer Reading List.

Bradley Moore's Summer Reading List.

Charity Singleton's Summer is Time for Reading.

Cheryl Smith's My Summer Reading List Is Getting Out of Control.

Picnic by Laura Boggess for the High Calling Blogs.


My mother, 87, holds great-grandson Cameron, almost 3 months, for the first time, June 9, 2010.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Life Is a Garden

I’m continuing to follow, read and record from God the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us by L.L. Barkat. For me, it’s week 2: “Rules – The Way,” and I’ve been reading about spiritual practice, considering who’s really in control of my life, and how a pair of cardinals watching over a baby can suggest a lesson about learning to fly.

And there’s this chapter exercise about writing your life as a garden.

The gardens we have at home were originally planned by my wife with a landscape designer; you have to do something when the builder scrapes off the top six feet of dirt – including all the topsoil – and anything green. It was literally a clean slate – a clean clay slate. Missouri clay. We had it analyzed – zero percent organic matter.

Over the years, we’ve added a rather elaborate redwood fence, then replaced it with something similar in plastic when the redwood decided to rot. We built gardens around the perimeter of the house itself and along most of the fence.

As my wife’s knees steadily weakened, the garden fell more and more in my direction. And I’ve gone through phases. The rose phase lasted for several years; at one point we had more than 50 rose bushes. Then rose rosette disease struck and only a handful survived. The perennial phase started big and then slowed. But it never stopped – I still pick up occasional plants each spring at a nearby nursery. The annual phase started about three years ago, when we bought a bunch of zinnias and others to plant under trees, in borders and any place I can find to plant too many purchased plants. There’s also a small bed for tomatoes.

The one consistent planting practice I’ve had is bulbs. I plant a lot of bulbs each year. Lots. And I know exactly why – the Dutch Gardens catalog knows when it’s in the hands of an adult with big eyes – the proverbial kid in the candy store. All kinds of tulips. Irises. Daffodils. Hyacinths. I order by what looks appealing, with only vague thoughts in my head about where they will all go.

When the shipment arrives, usually sometime in mid-October, I’ve forgotten why I ordered so many. I can’t believe how many bulbs are in the box. But I dutifully get out the bulb tool and bulb fertilizer, and away I go. I always end up with aching hands and back and at least two skinned knuckles. It’s totally predictable.

The garden’s structure is provided by river birches, maple trees, magnolia trees, hollies, a viburnum that was only supposed to grow to six feet, not 12, hydrangeas, a dogwood and a crabapple. The front of the house also includes boxwood.

So, if my life is a garden, if my life is this garden, what does it say about me?

I love the beauty of living things, and I’m willing to work to produce them (usually). And the work can be hard and dirty – but that’s what it takes to grow what matters.

It takes a long time to grow a garden, particularly when the soil starts off with zero organic content and you have to add lots of stuff. And you have to keep adding lots of good stuff.

Nothing ever goes exactly to plan. Disease happens. Lack of rain requires watering. Too much rain is a problem, too. (I remember the late spring of 1993, trying to plant two rosebushes and it was as if the rain would never stop; that was the year of the great flood.) And then there are weeds; weak trees (like Bradford pears) that decide to fall down all by themselves; and seedlings spread from the maples (millions of seedlings spread from the maples; millions and millions).

I haven’t even mentioned the grass.

It looks orderly, but the order has little to do with me. In the spring and early summer, it can look spectacular and bring people walking by on the sidewalk to a stop. But there are always things to fix, things to do, things that die and have to be discarded, new things to try.

It does sound a lot like my life.


Contemplation by Laura Boggess.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Edith Grossman's "Why Translation Matters"

In the fall of 1986, I was in a master’s program at Washington University in St. Louis, and taking a seminar in “The Latin American Novel.” I have to admit that, prior to the course, I was familiar with (but had not read) only one Latin American novel – One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Yes, I was an Anglo-centric cretin.)

We read 100 Years of Solitude, and we read The Green House and The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa. And Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. And The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. And several other works. I wrote my major paper for the seminar on Vargas Llosa’s Conversations in the Cathedral, which seems to have no narrative structure at all until you understand that it is actually four stories being told simultaneously. Think Faulkner on steroids.

This was a whole new world for me, and I explored it as fully as I could. Not too long after I finished the course, I began reviewing books for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; the book editor discovered my affinity for Latin American fiction; and I soon became inundated with novels, non-fiction and poetry from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, and then the fiction of American children of immigrants to the U.S. (legal and illegal). I did this for close to seven years – and I had to keep funneling books to school libraries to prevent our house from becoming a vast library.

But I didn’t read the works in the original Spanish or Portuguese. I read them in translation. And so I met names like Alfred MacAdam, Helen Lane, Gregory Rabassa – and Edith Grossman.

Why Translation Matters is based upon two lectures Grossman gave at Yale University and an original essay written for this volume. She explains, with all of the artful love of a translator, what the process of translation involves, the challenges it poses (and they are formidable), and why translations are important. And she means translation “not as the weary journeyman of the publishing world but as a living bridge between two realms of discourse, two realms of experience, and two sets of readers.”

For the fact is that no good translation can be a literal, word-for-word effort. It’s simply not possible. Languages are full of expressions, artifacts, histories, nuances, hidden meanings and all of the other components of culture that may – or may not – translate well. And even if they translate well, they can’t really ever be exact, because the experience that shaped Spanish, for example, is not the same that created English. The translator faces the task of remaining true to the author’s words and intent, but that dedication can mean, and often does mean, continuing to “write” the work in hand. In that sense, translation means that no literary work is actually ever “finished.”

Grossman tackles these issues head on. And it’s because of translators like Grossman that we have anything resembling a “world literature” instead of a collection of “national literatures.”

Just a few years ago, Grossman translated Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. She had first read Don Quixote in English, translated by Samuel Putnam – the same translation of Don Quixote I first read and fell in love with. Her translation has met wide acclaim, and she talks extensively about it in her third essay in Why Translation Matters.

I knew her work before I met her in this volume. In fact, I’ve read at least seven novels she has translated, and I learned that I could see “Translated by Edith Grossman” on a book’s title page and know that I was holding a novel that would be well worth my time to read.

Don Miller's Message

My new post, on author and speaker Don Miller, is up at The Christian Manifesto. I consider his books Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, and discuss how the medium is the message. Let me know what you think.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Cheap wine, Tokay, I think,
or Thunderbird, whatever fits
a plain brown paper bag;
plastic cup, reflecting the
light filtering the high
windows of the cathedral.
Drink, deeply.

Not a warm place; wind
slipping through cracks in
stone, cooling with stone’s
touch, brushing along stone
surface, light freezing through
glassy stains, shards of icy
color cast on icy stone.

Little side chapels, like silver
beads on a necklace or charms
on a child’s bracelet, decorated
with silence, sheens of
candlelight shimmering among
gilt-edged saints who
watch, not speaking.

Worshippers departed long ago
but tourists wander in awe.
Memory is not linear.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Writing in Place, Writing to Place

Julia Cameron, in The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, talks about the importance of “placing” a piece of writing in its context, that “placing” is one of the things that makes a piece of writing real to a reader.

One of the writing exercises in the book is to list every place you have ever lived, and then to select one and write as if you are there in the present tense. For me, developing the list turned out to be surprisingly easy, and rather than list all 16 places I’ve lived, I’ve grouped them by city:

New Orleans, Louisiana (four in 18 years)
Jacksonville, Florida (one in 15 months)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana (four in four years)
Beaumont, Texas (two in nine months)
Houston, Texas (three in four years)
St. Louis, Missouri (three in 31 years)

Two places on that list have had the most impact on me as a person and a writer. It’s no surprise – they are the two places I lived the longest – the house in suburban New Orleans where I lived from age 4 to almost 18, and the house I’ve lived in St. Louis since 1986. Not counting the three earliest homes (age 4 and under), I have been writing in all of the other 13 places, not to mention various hotel rooms, beaches, airplanes, airport gate waiting areas, parking lots, restaurants and just about everywhere else I might have access to computer or pen and paper.

The place I chose to “be” and write in the present tense is my college freshman dorm room, the day I arrived at college.

It is Sept. 14, 1969, and I have just turned 18. I drive from my home in the western suburbs of New Orleans to LSU in Baton Rouge. I am driving my graduation present – a 1970 candy-apple-red Ford Maverick (the 1970 models were out in mid-1969). It is packed with everything important for me to have in college – clothes, books, sheets and pillows, personal stuff, and a black-and-white portable television. I arrive at my dorm, check in to get the key to room 114, and unload my car.

The room is at the end of a hallway, with a 14-foot ceiling and pale green walls. With two closets, two metal-frame beds and two metal desks, the room is a mirror image of itself. With no roommate yet in evidence, I choose a side and plop my stuff on the bed. I stick my head in the bathroom down the hall, with its six stalls and six shower heads in a communal shower. I finish unloading the car and park in the designated area for students.

In my room, I’m unpacking when I’m visited by an upperclassman who urges me to sign up for fraternity rush. I decide not to, but this meeting will turn out to be a crucial event – in a few months I will pledge this fraternity and my life will change dramatically. He leaves; I glance at my watch and realize I have to run to make an advanced placement test in math, followed by one in how to use the library (“Books and Libraries,” which students shortened to “Books and Berries”).

I finish the tests, check my room (still no roommate) and then walk to the student union to eat dinner. I’ve been in the union building many times before – any time I visit LSU I go to the union and the bookstore. I notice a lot of other solitary freshmen doing the same thing I am – eating by themselves and looking rather overwhelmed. Returning to my room, I find my roommate and his parents have arrived and are unpacking. He has a lot more stuff than I do.

I turn out to be fortunate indeed – my roommate is a great guy, a walk-on for the freshman football team (so he’s big). He belies the stereotyped football player image because he’s smart, too.

We talk late into the night. Sharing our backgrounds and family information, what we’ll be studying, what we like and don’t like. Even though he’s from a small town and I’m from the big city, he turns out to be far more worldly and sophisticated than I am.

We will get to be very good friends this year. Many months from now, he will hand me a glass of cheap wine to drink while I’m struggling to write a paper on Gothic architecture in France, and I will ace the paper.

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess is leading a discussion of Cameron’s The Right to Write. Take a look and see what others are saying, commenting and posting. Last week’s discussion was about connection, being an open channel and integrating. This week’s discussion is about credibility, place and happiness.


L.L. Barkat's Happiness Beyond Writing.

Nancy Kourmoulis' Makin' A List.

What Were We Waiting For? by Marilyn Yocum.

Melo's Missed the Boat.

Cassandra Frear's A Page at a Time.