David Armand

A Blog About Writing, Publishing, and Random Thoughts

Sorry, Out on Rental

I still own a VCR. And I still have a collection of tapes to go with it. So when I read last month that the final video cassette recorders were going into production, thus officially marking the end of home entertainment as I once knew it, a part of me grew very sad.

Coming up in the early-to-mid nineteen eighties, video rental stores were a huge part of my childhood experience. I can still remember, for example, “National Video” in Covington, which was next to Winn-Dixie, and the tan plastic cases with orange lettering on them that they kept their movies in. It was a small store, though, and their prices were high.

Not far down the road from there, and even better, was “Video Co-op” (which later became “Pat’s Video”), where you had to bring the box of the movie that you wanted up to the guy at the counter. Then he would pull the rental case from a number-lined shelf behind him. This was before computers, of course, so he would have to write down your name and the number that corresponded to the movie that you were renting on a little blue index card, which he then filed away in a plastic box under the counter until you returned the tape the next day. The last step was for him to put a yellow band around the movie, which said, “Out on Rent,” or some variation thereof, before returning the movie case to its spot on the shelf.

As a kid, this was all very magical to me. Not just the movies themselves, of course, but the experience of going to the store, browsing the shelves, reading the summaries on the back of each box, then finally taking my selections up to the counter. Nothing can replace that. With Redbox, Netflix, video onDemand, and other online streaming services, part of that magic is definitely gone. But seeing people’s recent nostalgia over the Netflix series, Stranger Things, it makes me wonder how needed a local, mom-and-pop video rental store might be in our communities.

*

In the 90s, a small video store called “Movie World” opened up in Folsom, the little one-red-light village where I grew up. It was a thrill to not have to drive twenty-five minutes to Covington anymore to rent movies or Nintendo games, or to have to choose from the very limited selections in Folsom’s many, seemingly ubiquitous convenience stores: Jr. Food Mart, John’s Curb Market, or another one that was known only as “the blue store.” That’s not to say that those places didn’t have their perks: Jr. Food Mart, for example, sold fried chicken and potato wedges, cheeseburgers wrapped in tin foil, which were kept under a heat lamp for God knows how long; John’s Curb Market sold Slush Puppies, the alternate version of the ICEE (and which was far superior, in my opinion, with its little pebbles of ice swimming in all that nectar-flavored juice); and, of course, “the blue store,” which had oily cement floors and sold Barq’s root beer in sweaty brown bottles. These amenities made up for those places’ lack of movie rental selections when you didn’t feel like driving all the way to Covington.

But Movie World, right in the center of Folsom, was a great development and, dare I say, cultural addition to our little town. We went there practically every weekend, and even sometimes on the weekdays after school. My older sister got a job there. It was like heaven. I remember the owner, Bob, and his impromptu movie reviews based on your selections. He would tell you before you forked over your two bucks if the movie you picked out was any good or not. (You eventually learned to trust his opinion based on mutual taste.)

Another development of that time was that the Sega Genesis had replaced Nintendo in popularity (at least in my mind, since I had a Genesis) by then and I can remember receiving unsolicited game reviews from one of Mr. Bob’s employees—an older guy with a brown mullet named Deuce (for the record, I thought Deuce was pretty cool back then, as he not only knew a lot about Sega games, but he also had a vast knowledge of horror movies, which I was really into at the time).

I also remember that grainy quality of the tapes we rented, and how some of the movies that were shelved near the large window at the front of the store were often sun-faded so that it was hard to read the text on the box.

87492567_4f506c88a2_z

Now, despite all of that charm, if you did still make the drive to Covington to what was then Pat’s Video, a very effeminate man with glossy fingernails would often comment on your selection. His reaction was always that of surprise (or disdain) at your rental choices. One time, when my brother and I rented Uncle Buck, he looked at us with a suspicious grin on his face, then asked, “Uncle Buck? Come on, what are you two up to?” It was as though renting that particular movie carried with it some secret stigma, but it didn’t matter. The point is that it was that everyday human interaction—that personal conversation that came with renting movies—that mattered. That’s what it seems we are losing more and more of every day, and in almost every aspect of our lives.

But all of this was great back then—like I said, magical—so much so that my family had by this point amassed quite a large collection of VHS tapes. We had hundreds of movies stacked on shelves under our TV, and my grandparents had a library of BetaMax tapes in their house in New Orleans. Watching movies and quoting from those movies was a family tradition that seems to have died along with the stores themselves.

Now I’m not trying to sound like someone resentfully lamenting the “good ole days,” even though I do miss that particular aspect of my past—renting and watching movies—and it does make me sad that my children won’t get to experience that, but I guess I just want to remember, kind of like a eulogy, the good things about something that has passed on, in hopes that others will remember it, too.

And, as a lagniappe, here is a list of my #Top7Films from that time:

The Shining, by Stanley Kubrick

Born on the Fourth of July, by Oliver Stone

Carrie, by Brian De Palma

Fargo, by the Coen brothers

The Silence of the Lambs, by Jonathan Demme

A Clockwork Orange, by Stanley Kubrick

Platoon, by Oliver Stone

On Being an Orphan

The other day I was on a panel at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge when the moderator asked me a question that would have sent me hiding under the table just a couple of years ago. But now, with a memoir forthcoming next spring and people asking more and more about my personal life and how it intersects with my writing life, I was actually happy to be asked this. It was probably one of the best questions I’ve ever gotten in an interview, in fact. And so I want to talk about it here for a minute.

So what did the moderator ask me?

He asked what effect my being adopted had on me as a writer. I was thrilled by this question because I have been thinking a lot about its answer lately. And it came at just the right moment, as all good things tend to do.

To start with a little background, I’m someone whose biological father did not want him and whose mother was unable to take care of him because she was mentally ill. As a result, I was eventually at the mercy of relatives who took me in as their son. I was suddenly part of a new family with an older sister and a younger brother, a family with new rules and ways of being that I hadn’t been used to as an only child, one whose mother doted on him as a prodigy one day, only to leave me in bed all morning in a dirty diaper the next.

I wasn’t (mis)treated in either of these ways by my new family, thankfully. But there was a consistency in the fact that I always felt like an outcast, a child with “problems”: emotional, mental, and even developmental problems. I was taken to a child psychologist. I was now no longer a prodigy, but just a weird, creepy little kid, one who was watched with a careful eye to ensure I didn’t hurt animals or my younger brother—the telltale signs of a budding serial killer, a psychopath. I’m being serious here. I really felt as though I was perceived this way. I’m still pretty sure that I was. And I never really did anything to deserve this image.

Anyway, when I was about eight or nine, I wasn’t sure why, I started drawing comic strips. It was the most natural form for me at the time. I wanted to tell stories and that’s how I could do it. After that, I started filling little notebooks with short stories and fragments of novels I thought up while sitting outside in a tree or in a field behind the woods of our trailer. I never showed these things to anyone. As I got older, in high school, I wrote poems and song lyrics. I kept these to myself as well until I realized that some girls my age were interested in reading them. That they’d give me attention I would have otherwise been denied had I not a cool story or poem or song in my notebook.

I don’t think I realized all of this at the time, though, but now I know that what I was doing was trying to impose order on my life, trying to take control of my situation that I also now realize left me feeling utterly helpless and out of control. It was also around the time when I started writing that I started to exhibit signs of OCD (another form of attempting to maintain control over one’s life), which would snake itself in and out of my world in various forms over the years. I still suffer from the illness today, though it’s less severe.

What I’m really trying to say is that I think my being born to a mentally ill mother, often being left to fend for myself and sometimes even take on the parent role with her, then being adopted, “taken away” from her (that’s how my then two-year-old mind saw it, anyway), is what led me down this particular path of reading and writing books. It was all about order, control, structuring the things I couldn’t understand into a manageable form—and for me, it was stories.

As I grew up and had my own family and started to write more professionally, trying to make an honest-to-God living at it, I started to think a lot about all of this, and so I think this is my attempt at an answer to the moderator’s question: I write because I have to understand my life of being an orphan, and maybe in doing so, I can help someone else better understand his or her place in the world. It’s really that simple.

I’m pretty sure I’ve finally found my place in this world: as a dad, a husband, a teacher, and finally maybe even a writer. I feel lucky for that. And even though it may feel tenuous sometimes, I have to say it feels pretty damned all right.

Gratitude

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

–from “Happiness,” by Raymond Carver

 

 

Summer. 2009. I was working as a tutor to make up for the fact that I wasn’t teaching that term, and money was really tight. We were on food stamps, living in a low-rent apartment near campus, and our kids were very young: Lily was three and Levi was just under a year old. We had one car, so my wife had to drop me off at work, which was at the far north end of campus. It was probably just over a mile. A couple of times, I rode my bike there, but my bike was stolen by one of our neighbors and it was far too hot for me to walk. I never did get that. The bike had a child’s seat on the back and everything, and still the guy stole it. Sold it, I’m guessing, since I never saw it again. I confronted him about it, but in his drug-addled way, he denied it. I let it go. It wasn’t worth it.

Anyway, tutoring was often slow. While the students were required to see me each day at a scheduled time, most of them never showed up. I had my own little office with a computer and a small table and white board. I met some really nice kids that summer, but like I said, the majority of the time was slow time. I spent a lot of that time reading books. I read Sylvia Nasar’s great biography on the mathematician John Nash, A Beautiful Mind. I might’ve read All the King’s Men, too. I don’t remember. I admit I wasted a fair amount of that time surfing the Internet. But one day, out of pure boredom and frustration, I opened a blank Word document on that computer and typed the words “It was dark” at the top of the page. I didn’t realize then that that line would be the first words of my second novel, Harlow.

You see, I had recently finished my first book, The Pugilist’s Wife, and it was in the hands of various agents and small presses, but I didn’t have high hopes it would find a home. After all, I had published a handful of short stories in small journals, but I didn’t have a very good track record at the time so it was easy to be discouraged. And those rejections came in, let me tell you, trickling in my mailbox or in my email like a leak in a roof that gets more and more depressing as the leak grows in size, spreading into a big coffee-colored stain across the ceiling. And you know there’s nothing you can do about it to fix the damn thing. You just have to let it rot.

But despite all that, this new novel started to grow pretty rapidly from just that one line, this one image, and each day I would write more of it, sitting in that small office, the fluorescent light overhead and lack of any window in there often causing me to go home with migraines, but I kept working. It gave me a sense of purpose and hope. I was telling my own story, in a way, and I didn’t care if anyone ever read it or not. I was just writing a story about a boy looking for his father. It was that simple.

Harlow took me two and a half years to finish. I finished writing it on Valentine’s Day of 2012. During that interval, my daughter survived a brain tumor and surgery, my mother tried to commit suicide, was hospitalized for several months, my first novel was accepted for publication by Texas Review Press, my wife and I were officially married by a Justice of the Peace–our neighbor and kids the only witnesses, we bought a house. It was a fair mixture of both good and bad things, the things that make up life.

*

My first novel didn’t sell too wonderfully, and though I did a handful of readings and book signings in support of it, I just couldn’t get it off the ground. So I was surprised that my editor, Paul Ruffin, was willing to publish my second book when I was done with it. And here is what I never imagined happening: while Harlow has been far from a best seller, the reaction and response I have received from readers all over the country has been nothing short of moving. I have had people cry while talking to me after a reading, telling me of their own experiences with their absent fathers, I have had strangers come up to me and give me great bear hugs after hearing my story and learning of what I had overcome.

The book has been out for a little over a year now and I still get emails from readers telling me what it has meant to them. I have gotten to meet some wonderful authors whose work I have long admired. I have gotten to travel and take my family along with me to some pretty damn amazing places. I have seen the inside of William Faulkner’s kitchen, touched the phone he must’ve answered when he got the call saying he won the Nobel Prize. And I’m not saying any of this to brag. I’m saying it because I’m amazed that those words, “It was dark,” and the feeling that accompanied them when I first wrote them have changed my life in ways I never thought possible. And they still mean the same thing to me, but in a more literal sense than ever, because it is no longer quite so dark. It was, as that sentence says, but now there’s a lot more light.

The Roads We Travel

The following is the text of a speech I delivered to about a hundred high school students who were visiting Southeastern Louisiana University a couple of years ago. I had worked with a lot of them throughout the semester, reading and commenting on their writing. I hope I helped inspire one or two of them.

 

Early Start English Day
Keynote Speech, November 2012

More than several people have asked me why I chose to include the odd jobs that I’ve worked over the years in my author bio instead of listing more of my so-called “prestigious” accomplishments. My answer inevitably has two parts: first I listed those jobs there to sort of humanize myself for my readers but I also wanted to possibly inspire folks who think there’s only one specific path to achieving their goals, whether artistic, academic, or in their business careers.

After all, John Steinbeck worked in construction: he actually helped build Madison Square Garden in New York during the Great Depression before going on to write highly successful novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. William Faulkner painted billboards and served as a postal worker and then worked in the boiler room at Ole Miss, heating up the dorm rooms over the winter and writing As I Lay Dying in the middle of the night when he wasn’t heaving coal into the large metal boilers. Robert Frost eked out a living as a chicken and dairy farmer, as well as a grammar school teacher, once being called “the hen man” by one of his students, who was later expelled. All this, these writers did while faithfully practicing their craft and believing in what they were doing, and in themselves. No doubt they all had teachers along the way who believed in them as well. (Both Steinbeck and Faulkner went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature. And Robert Frost won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times and recited the inaugural poem for John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961.) The point is that no path is necessarily etched in stone based simply on the early tribulations one may encounter in work and in life.

* * *

Fifteen years ago, I was a junior in high school and came here to Southeastern with my English teacher and one other hand-selected student to participate in English Day. To this day, I’m not exactly sure why my teacher selected me to come. But I was so reluctant to participate that I made a point of being late for school that day so I’d have an excuse for not going to Hammond. My English teacher was steadfast, however. She was determined: she waited for me there in the grass parking lot at Covington High School so that as soon as I pulled up in my beat up little pick-up truck, she corralled me into her car, and we sped down Highway 190 and into Hammond so that we would be on time for the English Day activities on campus.

You see, I never considered myself a great student then: I took the easiest courses I could, and college, to be quite honest, was one of the last things on my mind. Looking back, I think my teacher must have had some sort of intuition about me. It was as if she could see past my facade and was able to recognize something more there. It was a gift I now believe a lot of my teachers had and I don’t think I’d be standing here today if it weren’t for that special talent that all good teachers seem to possess: the gift to see all of their students’ potential and to bring that potential into light. Certainly the teachers among us here today can relate to that, I think.

I distinctly remember three things about English Day that year in 1997: sitting in one of the windowless classrooms in D Vickers and listening to a lecture on Milton’s Paradise Lost, hearing Bev Marshall (who is now our writer-in-residence and an accomplished novelist but was then an instructor still working on her craft). She read a short story to us in the Writing Center called “Peddling Day” about a young black girl who learns about racism in the south (I can still remember that story vividly, even to this day) and lastly, I remember entering the creative writing contest and writing a short story, which didn’t win, but I wasn’t terribly discouraged, however, for I had seen, firsthand, the close knit community and true sense of passion that Southeastern had to offer.

When I was in high school, the Dual Enrollment program didn’t yet exist: at least not to my knowledge. So I took the standard curriculum in order to graduate as quickly as possible, not thinking ahead much at all, and in 1998 I graduated from high school just like everyone else in my class. I felt as if I were finished with my schooling.

You see, at that time, I wasn’t really what one would consider a great candidate for attending college: I lived in Folsom, Louisiana, and we were fairly poor, and most of the kids I went to school with never even finished. Some ended up in jail, while the more fortunate ones ended up working for their families doing farm work. I also had other odds stacked against me: at two years old I was put up for adoption and moved in with my aunt and uncle, whom I would eventually come to know as Mom and Dad. I was formally adopted when I was ten years old, and I grew up with this family as their son.

My dad passed away not long after I finished high school, though, and both my brother and I had spent the year leading up to his death—and several months after he passed—working odd jobs to help our mom pay the bills and to help take care of our younger sister who was only eight years old. The odds of me going to college now (much less being successful there) seemed to be shrinking fast.

When I was twenty years old, not long after my dad died, and against those odds, I enrolled here at Southeastern. I’d always liked reading and writing (books were one of the few solaces I had as a young boy: I read Mark Twain, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe) so naturally my English courses were among my favorites. I still felt the same sense of community and love of literature from the dedicated faculty here that I had noticed several years earlier. After my third semester, I officially declared myself an English major.

It was my teachers here at Southeastern who exposed me to great literature and who inspired me to write seriously. I took my first creative writing class with Dr. Jack Bedell in 2003, who has since become a lifelong friend. That first semester in his class, he nominated me for the prestigious D Vickers Award for creative writing, which I later won. This was enough to assuage any doubts I may have had about myself as a writer then.

During my last semester as an undergraduate, I took a fiction writing class with Dr. Norman German—he also nominated me for the D Vickers Award but the person who headed the department then informed German that the same student could not get the award twice, but mentioned that it had been unprecedented to have a single student nominated more than once. It was then that I was convinced I had found my calling. But writing is not always about reward: it is hard and often lonely work.

And so I kept working, continuing on to graduate school here at Southeastern, where the highlights of my tenure were working with Professor Tim Gautreaux (our other writer-in-residence) on my thesis, a collection of short stories, and then getting the coveted editorial assistant position at our university’s literary journal and press, where I am still heavily involved to this day.

All the while I was shaping in my head what would ultimately become my first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife. The genesis of the story actually came from an experience I had in high school when my good friend’s mother had him come home from school early one day to be with her at their house in Sun, Louisiana, after an inmate had escaped from the Rayburn Correctional Center near Bogalusa. She was afraid the inmate would wind up on her porch looking for food or money and she naturally didn’t want to be alone. The man was later apprehended with little incident, I heard, but that image of a lonely and terrified woman waiting for a criminal to emerge from the woods to harm her stayed with me all those years, engraving itself on my subconscious. I didn’t even consider myself a writer back then, but the seed had certainly been planted.

Then in what seemed like a flurry of time and events (finishing my master’s degree, starting work on a PhD in Lafayette, getting married, having children, buying a house), I somehow managed to finish writing my book and started sending it off down the long road of rejections: and believe me, they piled up, and the road was certainly long. But I never faltered. I believed (like the writers I mentioned earlier) in the work I had done and made a personal goal to have my first novel in print before I turned thirty-three: this wasn’t an arbitrary number, but it was the same age as one of my favorite authors, Cormac McCarthy, when he published his first novel The Orchard Keeper. Not unlike the authors I mentioned earlier, McCarthy had been homeless and worked in an auto parts warehouse before he eventually published that first book. So, you see, no two paths are the same. And it is often taking the road less traveled , as Robert Frost said, that makes all the difference.

*

Two years ago, I received a phone call from a university press director informing me that my novel had won their annual fiction prize and that they wished to publish the book the following year. Now I finally feel as if I am fulfilling what I am supposed to be doing in life, what I was put here on earth to do: to write and to teach. That may sound cliché, but I strongly believe that the hardships I’ve experienced have all somehow aided me in being able to stand here before you at this moment. And each one of your personal stories of loss and hardship that I’ve come across in your assigned memoirs over the semester serve only to further my belief in the power of the human spirit to not only endure but to rise above our collective pains and tribulations to a place where we can all realize our dreams and pass on what we’ve learned to posterity so that one day the world might truly be a better place.

On Inspiration and Posterity

My family, some close friends and I went to Tickfaw State Park today. The park is located in Springfield, Louisiana, and has some of the finest nature trails around, with some great views of the Louisiana wildlife and their habitats. The park also features a Nature Center, which is an indoor exhibit that houses reptiles, interactive learning centers, and stuffed replicas of some of the wildlife that can be found here in Louisiana.

After I walked around for a while, I decided to leave with the rest of the group, but as I was walking toward the exit, I happened to glance over at a display case featuring two woodcarvings of grayish brown ducks.  I walked over to look more closely at them, and I was stunned to see that my late grandfather had made these. The display was called “Pintail Pair.”  I was moved nearly to tears to see my grandfather’s name, Edward Alba, on the gold plaque in front of the two wonderful ducks, which were intricately carved and painted to an almost perfect realism. You could see his careful brushstrokes and etchings and the care and patience put into the decoys’ making: I remember watching my grandfather in his workshop as a young boy and how the wood smelled as he whittled away at it with a knife and a woodburning tool. How he could turn two blocks of wood into something like this is astounding.
alba 001

(click to enlarge)

And now here was his artwork, keeping his spirit alive, and it was as if I could literally feel his presence there with me. It was so unexpected, like running into an old friend, or better yet a long lost relative.  I went outside and grabbed my wife and kids to show them, then excitedly went to talk to the folks behind the information desk to see if they knew anything about the display. They said it had been there since 1999, four years before my grandfather had passed away. I never even heard him mention this, such was his humble nature and spirit.

He had been the president of the Louisiana Wildfowl Carvers Association in the late 70s and early 80s, and he was quite highly-regarded for his talents (one of his watercolors is actually on the cover of my first book), but I was still just so thrilled to see his work on display in such a public place. The feeling I had the first time I ever saw one of my own books on the shelf in a local bookstore pales in comparison to seeing this. It was such an honor, for I loved my grandfather so much: he was like a father to me, especially during my early childhood, which was a very difficult time in my life.

alba 002(click to enlarge)

I showed the decoys to my wife’s friend Rachel and her mother, then borrowed their camera to take a couple of pictures. (I later went back to the Nature Center on our way out of the park and used my wife’s camera to take the pictures that are seen here.) I looked down at my son and daughter (who never got to meet my beloved grandfather) and thought about how his work is one of the things that will one day make him alive for them (even though they are a bit too young to appreciate it now). I then started thinking about the work we all do, and what we leave behind, what makes us immortal. And it’s not just our physical work, the things we make, but it’s the love we pass on to others, our memories: that’s our legacy. Some of us do it through the things we make, others through our actions and our relationships: Both are equally important.

I know I’m far from being a perfect person: a perfect man, husband or father, but the little contributions I can make (whether that be stories, inspiration, or love) is what will last long after I’m gone. I hope that one day my children and my children’s grandchildren even will have something of me in their hearts because of what I’ve done while I was here on Earth. At the end of the day, that’s what it is that I really work for. And that’s what we should all work for.

Process

I’m currently making my third novel: I’m about 100 pages in, close to 30,000 words. I use the word “making” intentionally, as I believe that, like poetry, the novel (and any artifact) is a “made” thing. Any creator, therefore, is a poet. God is a poet.

Writing novels can be like laying bricks, carefully placing one square at a time and adhering those bricks together with mortar. But every novelist’s process is different, however.

I get asked a lot how I put together my books: when people learn that I have two kids, two jobs, and myriad other responsibilities and obligations, they often seem astounded by the fact that I find time to write. I think people who say they don’t have time for something are lying (maybe subconsciously and to themselves), but lying nonetheless. If you really care about something, you’ll find time to do it.

And writing isn’t always about sitting in front of a keyboard and making words, sentences, paragraphs. Writing (for the real writer) happens twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It never takes a break. You, as a writer, are always noticing images, dialogue, stories (I hate using the term “ideas” because writing based on ideas is gimmicky and flat) and recording them in your mind for later use.

Personally, my process goes like this: I read all the time. When I’m reading a book that is particularly well-written (one, say, by Cormac McCarthy), I keep a pen and a piece of paper or an index card and I write down every word that resonates with me. For example, when I read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain for the first time, I had about six or seven note cards with words like spurtle, piggin, and scarp written on them. Those words resonated with me, had a certain feeling attached to them, a feeling I knew I wanted to have in my work-in-progress at the time. Those words become the bricks that started to make the wall of the novel. Too many writers today seem to forget the utter power that a single word (and the right word) contains, and therefore they miss the mark because their focus is too heavy on story or gimmick or idea that they forget why they came to the page in the first place: language and the fearless worship of it.

I also keep notes of names that sound/feel right to me. I make mental notes of images that I come across in everyday life and I use those in my writing.

I don’t write every day. That is, I don’t sit down in front of the keyboard every day and put words together. But I feel as if I am writing every day, as I am always thinking about stories and how to make them. When I do physically sit down to write, I do so very methodically and pragmatically. While I don’t know what I’m going to write beforehand, I do know what I’m working on (a novel, excerpting a portion of a novel-in-progress to make a salable short story, etc.) and I do so without outlines or any notion of where the day’s work is going or is going to lead me. That’s where the excitement/emotion comes in. However, it never comes directly from an emotion that I may be feeling at the time. That, to me, is just self-indulgent: if you do that, you might as well just keep a diary. The feeling in a good work of art comes from the exhilaration of not knowing, stepping out on a limb, taking a risk, being fearless. Anything else is just trite, boring.

I keep close record of my daily word count and track my progress (or lack thereof) very closely. I always know where I stand with word count and page number, and I have a general sense of how much longer it will take to get to the end of what I’m doing. For example, I know when I am working on a shorter work, or one that will require more than 200 pages in order to say it right.

While working, I keep my index cards and notes close by, referring to them for the right word or image as I go. I do this until the book is complete. Then I start to think about structure and how the story is told. I drew maps for my first two novels, then tracked the narrative across those maps to get an idea of the arc of the story. (I also wanted to make sure I had everything geographically right, since all of my work takes place in the same area of Washington Parish in southeast Louisiana.) I printed out hard copies of the novels and marked them up with a red pen, then a black pen, then used a highlighter to mark off the changes I accepted and ultimately made to the manuscript. It’s important to be organized and methodical about how you write. Since writing is so difficult and so messy (I have drawers and drawers full of file folders with various drafts of stories & novels and notes and even newspaper clippings and sketches of items I described, etc.), it is important to have some sense of control, some sense of order, method.

I haven’t gotten to that point on the third novel yet, but I’m already thinking about structure (the novel so far is told in short parabolic sections) and so I’m thinking about physically cutting out those sections after I print off what I have so far, and then taping those sections on the wall in my office: then I’ll move the sections around like those word magnets on a refrigerator door until all the sections are in their right place. (Faulkner famously made this crayon outline of A Fable on his office wall in Rowan Oak):

Faulkner Wall Writing-L

200809_OAH_william_faulkner

 

I want this next book, like the previous two, to be told out of chronological order, as a novel is never really interesting unless it experiments with time and also with language. The true artist must be fearless.

To me, it would be pretty easy to write a straightforward realistic novel, told in plain language. But that would also be boring. Nothing new.

Nostalgia

Last week I was looking through a box of old pictures; I was trying to cull some photos of my childhood so I could pass them on to my mother for Mother’s Day since she missed all of those years of my life due to her illness and her inability to take care of me.  As I looked through the pictures, I was surprised by how much I had forgotten or simply blocked out from memory: pictures of me and my brother hunting and fishing, riding bikes/horses, climbing trees.

You see, I grew up in Folsom, Louisiana, mostly, which is a small bucolic area in southeastern Louisiana, and I was surprised by how much my activities and lifestyle then really made me fit the bill for being what would now be considered a “hick” or just a plain old country boy. Back then, and in my teens and early twenties especially, I would have scoffed at these labels, rejecting them with all of my being. But now I can appreciate these things, and I am grateful for those rich experiences, particularly because they now show up in almost all of my writing: little did I know then that those events would have such an impact on my subconscious that I would eventually write about them all these years later.

In Harlow, for example, there are several hunting scenes pulled straight from my childhood: the characters hunt ducks, wild boar, and quail. (Here is a picture of me when I was about eight or nine years old with a fistful of quail that I had just shot. Interestingly, the boy in Harlow does the same thing, with a .410 shotgun just like the one I had (and still do) as a boy. )

scan0007

Seeing all of this and thinking about the boy I was made me long for that time again. Or at least that feeling of innocence and mystery that seems to surround everything we do as children.  This sort of nostalgia was literally considered a “sickness for the past” back in the eighteenth century when the term was first coined, and the implication is that to think of the past and long for it so greatly is damn near pathological. I agree that nostalgia can be crippling, but I think it’s important to be in touch with our past, to let it inform, in part, who we are today, right now. If I had rejected all of this (as I did at certain stages of my adolescence), I don’t think I would’ve been able to make the poems, stories, and novels that I have so far.

*

After I was finished going through the box of photos and pulling out the ones I thought my mother would like, I took my wife and son for a four wheeler ride through the woods in Folsom where I grew up.  We rode down steep clay banks and through muddy swales and into the shade of the pine thickets that still surround the patch of land where I was raised, and I could feel my hair blowing back in the wind and my little boy sitting in front of me and my wife’s arms around my waist: we passed horses in great fields where I used to lay as a boy and daydream or read, we passed deer stands in the tall pine trees and we could see the seeded clearings in the woods, we passed brown rabbits who stared at us and the foreign noises the four wheeler made before they bolted off into the copse.  We passed my whole life, it seemed, spooling out before us as the past does, moving and moving toward something, but never quite able to achieve what lies at the vanishing point, the end of the road.

Later that evening, I found my old .410 shotgun (pictured above) and I shot it a couple of times at some plastic decoys that were floating around in a pond. It was good to feel the gun kick against my shoulder, and to hear the clap of it firing off and to see the shot hit the decoy and splash up the water around it. But the gun felt so much lighter than it used to when I was a boy. It felt smaller too.  And it was almost as if I could feel the weight of everything I’ve ever seen or done thrust upon me then. But it felt good.

Now as the father of two children, and the men in my life who raised me now gone, I feel a certain obligation to remember my past: hunting and fishing, watching the Saints games on Sundays with my father drinking Budweiser beers from cans and yelling at the bad plays (and there were quite a few of them back then), going to Grand Isle and camping on the beach, then gigging fish in the shallows under the moonlight, and the next morning cooking pancakes on a tiny gas cookstove and the sand blowing in the pancake batter and how it crunched in your mouth as you ate the pancakes. If I don’t remember these things for my sake, then I remember them for my children’s sake. I hope my kids will carry that with them as they grow up, like I did, and pass it on to their children, and their children’s children, and so on. Because these are the things that stay in our hearts, and if we’re poets, these are the things that we use to make our stories out of.

Writing History

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

django2

The other day, my wife and I were debating about some of the more detestable characters in my work and some of the detestable things those characters do to one another. She was almost disturbed by the fact that the man she married writes about people who would do such things, and about those things themselves. I assured her that, as an artist, I wasn’t concerned with shock value, nor was I concerned with the sort of nihilistic realism that has no regard for aesthetic or beauty or hope or meaning (the things all artists should strive for).

I am also not necessarily concerned with psychoanalyzing my characters, nor my own motives for writing about these things. I’m simply relating a story, and sometimes bad things happen, sometimes horrible things happen. Flannery O’Connor said that the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. It’s truth, and at the end of the day there’s hope. Whether it’s hope for a better life, unencumbered by our history; or better yet, a life where our history is a part of us, but it doesn’t weigh us down and we can ride on with it: that’s hope. So it was with these ideas that I started thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, which I had just watched for the third time, mainly in an effort to try to figure out how I felt about it.

This film has received a lot of criticism (as well as praise) since its release late last year. Despite the controversies surrounding the film, its script (written by Tarantino) has garnered several major awards, including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2013.

From a writer’s perspective, I greatly admire the originality of Tarantino’s vision, his expert use of dialogue, his close attention to seemingly mundane details (the scene in which Dr. Schultz is pouring two beers for Django and himself is worth paying close attention to: for the sound of it and for the pure joy of the act that Schultz seems to display. Tarantino himself seems to relish in filming such actions as well. Another quick scene that I love is when Schultz shoots one of the Brittle brothers from his horse and the man’s blood splashes across a boll of cotton. ) All of this as well as the almost Shakespearean plots that Tarantino weaves, which almost seem to aim for Greek tragedy status (his use of the WANTED ad that ultimately saves Django’s life (told by Schultz much earlier in the film that his first bounty’s handbill should always be kept for “good luck”) later becomes a sort of deus ex machina used to propel the film’s denouement), is well worth your money and your time, in my opinion.

Any writer who is serious about his craft should pay close attention to Tarantino and his work. Take this snippet of dialog as yet another example of his genius:

[Django and Schultz ride up to the local Sheriff, with the dead bodies of the men they’ve killed being carried on the horses riding behind them]
Sheriff Gus: Doctor, Django, how the hell are ya? Who the hell you got there?
Dr. King Schultz: The Wilson-Lowe Gang.
Sheriff Gus: Who the hell is the Wilson-Lowe Gang?
Dr. King Schultz: Bad Chuck Wilson and meaner Bobby Lowe, and three of their acolytes.
Sheriff Gus: Huh. Well, just leave ’em out here, they ain’t going nowhere. Why don’t you come in out of the snowy snow and get yourselves some coffee. We had a birthday yesterday, got some cake. Pretty good.
[Schultz and Django follow the Sheriff into his cabin]

It’s laconic, terse, but believable and effective. There are so many implications and allusions in that little scene, just under a minute long, that seem to hint at Django’s rise in social status and newly-earned respect, plus it’s just funny.

These are just a few examples of what makes this film so great. There are many more.

*

Another point of debate about this film is the veracity of the depiction of “mandingo” fighting, in which slaves were forcefully pitted against one another in battle. Historians have argued that this “sport” would have been unlikely since slaveholders would not have wanted to have their valuable  “property” damaged so viciously.

But I believe this could very well have taken place: if there were wagers placed on these battles, surely some of these vicious slaveholders could have stood to profit from it. Then consider the visceral thrill Colonel Sutpen experiences from this in William Faulkner’s dark Southern novel Absalom, Absalom!:

“Yes, Ellen and those two children alone in that house twelve miles from town, and down there in the stable a hollow square of faces in the lantern light, the white faces on three sides, the black ones on the fourth, and in the center two of his wild negroes fighting, naked, fighting not as white men fight, with rules and weapons, but as negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad [….] and Ellen seeing not the two black beasts she had expected to see but instead a white one and a black one, both naked to the waist and gouging at one another’s eyes as if they should not only have been the same color, but should have been covered with fur too. […] Yes. That’s what Ellen saw: her husband and the father of her children standing there naked and panting and bloody to the waist and the negro just fallen evidently, lying at his feet and bloody too, save that on the negro it merely looked like grease or sweat….”

Here, not only is there a version of this “mandingo” fighting, but the slaveholder is actually participating with the slaves. This is not to say that since Faulkner wrote about it, then it must be true, but we generally revere Faulkner for his veracious depictions of the antebellum South, so it’s worth at least considering.

And then, of course, there were the Roman slaves who were made to fight in the gladiatorial games, ostensibly for entertainment and with little regard for the “property” that was being destroyed. This obsession with violence seems to be a pretty consistent theme throughout our human history, and so the film doesn’t seem that far off in its depiction of it. Violence is a part of our history, and that doesn’t change because of our inability to stomach it. There are only a few instances of violence in this film that seem gratuitous to me, and I think Tarantino is using them intentionally to create a sort of satire of violence and our response to it.

He’s an incredibly gifted writer, one who makes his own rules and succeeds by them.

*

I also like how Tarantino breaks other so-called rules of historical films: the soundtrack is mostly anachronistic, but somehow appropriate to the overall feel of the movie. There’s a great song by Rick Ross, “100 Black Coffins,” that appears in the film and then there’s the folksy tune by Jim Croce, “I Got A Name,” which seems incredibly relevant, as it plays just as Django is saddling his horse with his “D” engraved on the shiny leather of the saddle, himself a free man and about to cut out for the territories. There are also some original scores that serve the film’s overall feel as well, such as “Ancora Qui”  by Ennio Morricone. When one is able to break the rules of their trade and still come out with a successful piece of work, one is doing something right.

*

Most critics said the film lacked profundity but, to me, the connection between Django and Schultz is very touching and profound.  The thing that struck me was how civilized and (despite being a bounty hunter) morally upright Dr. King Schultz (I doubt the former part of this character’s name is an accident, though I’m surprised I never heard anyone mention it) seemed to be:  like watching Huck and Jim sailing down the river, we ultimately come to see the humanity of these two men, and through them get a sense of ourselves as well. We also, with our perspective of history, can see the almost eery connection between Schultz’s civilized German background and what would come just eighty years after the film’s frame of historical reference: yet another human atrocity in history (this is especially relevant when considering Tarantino’s precursor to this film, Inglourious Basterds).

django

Then there are the beautiful scenes of an almost pristine America during the film’s “winter” montage, where we see cattle grazing, beautiful snow-streaked mountains: an almost perverse beauty that serves as a sort of paradox to what the folks who inhabit that land are doing, especially when viewed as a sort of prologue to the following scenes in Greensville, Mississippi, where the true horrors of slavery are depicted. The mise en scene here is exquisite: you can feel the sweltering humidity as the characters ride to Candie’s plantation and you can literally hear the mosquitoes and the crickets buzzing in the background. This landscape is almost like a darker Eden, which Faulkner (to quote the man again) describes in his famous short story, “A Rose for Emily,” in one sweeping sentence:

“They held the funeral on the second day, with the town coming to look at Miss Emily beneath a mass of bought flowers, with the crayon face of her father musing profoundly above the bier and the ladies sibilant and macabre; and the very old men—some in their brushed Confederate uniforms—on the porch and the lawn, talking of Miss Emily as if she had been a contemporary of theirs, believing that they had danced with her and courted her perhaps, confusing time with its mathematical progression, as the old do, to whom all the past is not a diminishing road but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottle-neck of the most recent decade of years.”

Of course, this virginal “meadow” would be the South (a sort of Eden corrupted by slavery) and the bottleneck of years being the war which ended the Great Sin, but still the old Confederates long for that time again. It’s an America that has a dark, dirty secret, but an America that will never again belong to the Scarlett O’Haras and Rhett Butlers and Colonel Sutpens of that time. It’s interesting, also, that this very image that Faulkner makes here seems to form the picture of an hourglass if one were to literally sketch it out: Faulkner was certainly one obsessed with time (particularly the past), and I think Tarantino owes a debt to the great Mississippi author for this.  Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, so maybe time and the weight of history is just a hangup of Southerners, I don’t know.

*

While I was researching for this article, I came across this quote in a review of Django Unchained by Kirsten West-Savali, in which she said: “That’s art. It is not something that one should necessarily like or enjoy; rather it is something that should make one feel.”  So whether a piece of art makes you feel good or bad, it’s successful when it leaves you with something inside of your guts that you can take home with you and think about for a while.  And that’s really what any art that’s worth a nickel should do: nothing more and nothing less.

So to conclude, I have decided that I very much like Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, and I don’t think he’s morally or ethically bankrupt for showing us things that we don’t necessarily care to see: he makes us feel, and I sincerely hope that although I tend to write about things some folks don’t want to see, there is a feeling that I do so out of love for humanity, and not anything more or less than that.

“Elephant”

The first time I was ever paid for my writing was when I was in the third or fourth grade: I had made a comic strip for the Just Say No to Drugs campaign and won first place. The local ice cream shop and burger joint in the little town of Folsom, Louisiana, where I grew up gave me a check for fifty dollars and my comic was displayed at the parish fair.

It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I received money again for my creative work: this time I was given one hundred dollars for the D Vickers Award for creative writing at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I was then an undergraduate. My nominating professor joked during the award ceremony that that would probably be the most money I’d ever get for making poems.

He was right: I later started writing short stories, then moved on to novels (I’m nearing the halfway point of my third novel as I’m typing this). I didn’t make this move for monetary reasons, you see, but because it felt like a natural transition for me as an artist–to move from the shorter, more compact forms of poems and stories to the more open form of novel-writing.

When my first novel won the 2010 George Garrett Fiction Prize, I was awarded two hundred dollars, but more importantly a contract from a university press in Texas promising to subsequently publish my book. The following year when the book was released, I asked for two hundred dollars worth of my own books instead of the cash: I figured that by selling copies of my books at readings, etc. I would eventually make more than the two hundred dollars in prize money. Since I got a generous author’s discount on the books I received, I did make a little, but not much. I still have a box with about fifteen books sitting in my closet behind my workboots (which I haven’t had to wear in a long while, thankfully). Then late last year, I received a royalty check from my publisher for one-hundred and fifty two dollars. It’s not much, but it helped pay for Christmas last year.

Now my second novel is coming out from the same small university press, and although I’m not getting paid for it, per se, I have recently had an excerpt of the book accepted for publication by a quarterly magazine which is going to pay me three hundred and fifty dollars for the piece. A book festival in Nashville is paying me a five hundred dollar honorarium to attend their event this October.

With all of that said, I have made a little over thirteen hundred dollars for my writing so far in my life. I’m thirty-three years old with a wife, two kids, and a mother for whom I am financially responsible. Certainly that is not enough money. It wouldn’t even be enough for me alone. Faulkner called this “the old thrill and despair of a penny more or less.” And he was right. There is something thrilling about trying to figure out how you’re going to put bread and milk on the table: I’ve had to pawn my shot guns many times (a habit I learned from my father) in order to buy groceries. A welfare officer once told me a few years ago (after denying my claim for assistance) that I was one of the most creative earners he’d ever seen, meaning that I found some pretty interesting ways to make money: I was pleased for the compliment, but would have rather gotten the assistance. 

Of course, I have a full time job as a teacher (two teaching jobs, in fact), but that still doesn’t cut it. This summer, it looks as if I won’t be teaching at all, and although I’m happy to be unencumbered by teaching so that I can finish my next book, I worry how far I can stretch my federal tax refund to pay the mortgage and feed my family until I resume teaching in August. My wife’s birthday is coming up, then there’s Mother’s Day, and now my little boy needs a crown on one of his teeth (which will cost about three hundred dollars). It will be a trying time, but we’ll make it. If I have to dig ditches, we’ll make it. I’m figuring on trying to collect unemployment, if I can. Maybe food stamps.

But it’s hard when people think that because you’ve published two books that you must be doing well for yourself, when in fact you’re struggling, and when you see opportunities dwindle as a result of what people think of as your “success,” when you’d think it’d be the other way around. This has been the case for me. But you keep going. You have to. I was talking to someone today who told me to just think really hard about how much money I need to get through the summer–the exact amount, he said–and keep thinking about it, just focus on that amount, really hard: he said that if I did that, the money would come to me in some way. And I believe him, I really do. It’s about having faith and trust in the workings of the universe.

What got me thinking about all of this was that I just finished reading a short story called “Elephant” by Raymond Carver, one I was surprised that I hadn’t read before since I was sure I had read everything he ever wrote, and in it the narrator is talking about his financial burdens and the stress it causes him, but you could feel how that stress moved him as well: like Faulkner said, that old thrill and despair. In the story, the narrator remembers a dream he had in which his father was holding him on his shoulders, but then the father lets go of the boy’s legs, and the boy keeps his balance by putting his arms out and riding on his father’s shoulders like that: there’s a sense that trust and faith are in play here, and that’s why the boy doesn’t fall.

So that’s what I’ll do: put my arms out for balance and just have faith that I won’t fall down. I do have faith that things will turn around, and I feel pretty damned lucky to have made the thirteen hundred and some odd dollars by just making up stories and poems: who would’ve ever thought that could happen?

Violence in Art

I realize I’m far from the first to be writing on this topic, but on Easter Sunday I was watching The Passion of the Christ and started thinking about the significance of violence in art and storytelling. You see, the first time I ever saw that movie, I didn’t like it because I thought it focused too much on the utter brutality and the unimaginable suffering that Christ endured: I found the most poignant scene in the entire movie to be the one in which Jesus is building a table, and a sort of banter ensues between he and Mary over the table’s height and how people would one day sit at chairs in order to reach a table like the one he had just made. At one point, Jesus is looking underneath the table, apparently trying to judge the straightness of his lines, and it seems almost as if he winks and smiles at Mary (or us, the audience): I found this one scene, less than two minutes long, to be the most emotional and inspiring scene in the entire film. I remember thinking that the movie would have been much more resonant had it focused just on that more human aspect of Jesus’ life.

Then, this Sunday, after my wife and kids went to bed, I came across The Passion of the Christ on television and watched it again. There was a certain visceral feeling about it, especially in the opening scene where Christ is in the Garden of Gethsemane and is preparing himself for what he knows is to come: his suffering. He is tempted by Satan to turn his back on this, but Jesus knows he cannot. I felt a literal pain in my stomach trying to imagine the resolve one must have to willingly walk into this sort of fate. Later, when Jesus is questioned by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, he has another chance to escape his “conscription” to this fate, but he leaves it all in the hands of God, essentially forgiving the troubled governor for his role in this.

The subsequent half of the movie contains some of the most violent and troubling scenes I’ve ever encountered in film save for perhaps a Quentin Tarantino movie, but his sort of violence almost seems unrealistic in its extravagance. This violence, however, was real, extremely visceral. This is what a lot of people didn’t like about the movie, what I at first didn’t like about it.

Then I realized that the movie wasn’t focusing on the violence, per se, but that it was using it to sort of mirror, in the best way possible, the immense love that Christ had for mankind. If he didn’t, he would never have endured such a thing so willingly, going so far as to pray for his tormentors’ forgiveness. It occurred to me that sometimes it is through extreme violence that we see extreme love, extreme forgiveness. It is as if one extreme fosters another. This is the power of the human spirit, the power of Christ’s message.

*

Flannery O’Connor once said:  “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock–to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (Mystery and Manners 34). I think this film, and all good art (without being too didactic) does just this. The violence in The Passion of the Christ is “large” and it is often “startling” but it is clear that by juxtaposing that violence with (or using the violence to show) Christ’s love for his friends and for fellow man alike (at the Last Supper scene in the film, he even says: “You are my friends, and the greatest love a person can have for his friends is to give his life for them”), one is able to see the importance of such violence in the film and in any serious art with a message of hope: that the violence is essential, not gratuitous or extraneous; and through it we can learn, become cleansed.

 

Image

 

Post Script (04.07.13): In all three of my novels, there is what could arguably be called an excessive amount of violence. The characters hurt each other throughout the books, both physically and emotionally (yes, I believe in emotional/psychological violence); and in the vein of Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, the novels end with scenes of a sort of climactic violence: it is a tableau of pain, but much like the tragedies that inspire my work, there is a catharsis that follows this pain, both for the characters in the books and hopefully for the readers/audience as well.

I am reminded again of Quentin Tarantino’s best work: Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs (True Romance is also a great film (directed by Tony Scott but written by Tarantino) that has a sort of Shakespearean “standoff” at the end). I love the blocking of these kinds of scenes, the build-up of tension, the mise en scene, and how this tension is mostly built on the violence, or the coming of violence, the threat of it. I’ve tried to set up similar scenes at the ends of my novels, and hopefully have done so successfully.

But to return to the main point of why I started this little article in the first place, I think that violence can sometimes shake us up to a place of purity: whether it’s the pain itself, the fear of pain, or just the simple fact of being utterly afraid and in the moment with no sense of past or future–only now–that we become primal and alive, stripped bare, closer to what’s real and true: which ultimately is God. And in the final judgment, that should be the purpose of all great art that stands to mean anything, that stands to last: that stands to be a permanent artifact against the neverending pulse of time and its subsequent decay.

For further reading:
King James Bible
Aristotle’s Poetics
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men
Shakespeare’s tragedies
Aeschylus
Sophocles’ Oedipus
Flannery O’Connor’s stories/essays/novels
Aaron Gwyn’s and Benjamin Percy’s essay: “Spilling Blood: The Art of Writing Violence”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.