Monthly Archives: January 2016

84. Homegrown Terror, 1989, (3)

In 1989, I was writing a novel about being a school teacher and mirroring my story against real events when a school shooting took place in a nearby city. I wrote reality into the novel. This post is the third in an excerpt from Symphony in a Minor Key.

*****

Neil drove to the mall after school and went to a department store where he had seen racks of televisions on display. He had no TV himself and he did not want to watch this with Carmen. He could either watch it alone, or in the anonymity of a public place, but not with someone he loved. He arrived at the store just in time to see the whole bloody scene on the news. All normal business had stopped in the store as clerks and customers stood riveted by the horror of it.

A second channel picked it up and Neil watched again. His fascination was like a private shame. He hated the newsman for the way he shoved his microphone into a child’s face to ask her how she had felt, but he could not turn away.

The next morning the Modesto Bee devoted five full pages to the tragedy. Neil, who did not subscribe, went out early to buy a copy and read it all. Five dead. Thirty wounded. That would be half of the kids he taught. And all the rest, the other three hundred students, would never feel safe again. Like a rape, it would tear them out of their childhoods and plunge them into a mad, adult world long before their time.

What would he say to his own students today?

*****

As it turned out, he didn’t have to say very much. Less than half of them were aware of what had happened, and few of them were very interested. They were talking about it when they came in from the buses; those who had seen the news were telling those who had not. But it had come to them through the plastic reality of the television. It was no more real than a drug bust, famine in Ethiopia, or oil spills. Or Miami Vice. It was just another part of the endless effluvium of human suffering that washed about them every day; with marvelous sanity, most of them remained unmoved.

A few of them were affected. Tanya Michelson looked as if she had been crying when she came in and stayed unnaturally quiet all day. Lisa Cobb jumped at every sound. Oscar Teixeira had been thinking hard about what it all meant. He went straight to the fact that the children who had died had all been Asian. With a clarity of thought all out of proportion to his age, he made the connection to the celebration of Martin Luther King Day just before the shooting. Of course he did not speak of irony – not at eleven years old – but he did recognize the juxtaposition.

*****

I taught for twenty-seven years – about 4000 students by my best estimate. Most of them are a blur now, but when they were with me, they were a joy that filled my room and my life. Black (there were a few), Anglo or Mexican, or the very few of other ethnicities, all were precious.

I grew up in a time and place when everyone looked alike, sounded alike, and went to the same church. As I said on Monday, the black people who marched in Selma showed me another way of thinking.

This memory of the assassination of Asian children has inserted itself into a series of posts largely on black history, just as it inserted itself, most unwelcomely, into the novel I was writing in 1989.

It’s all part of the same story.

On Monday I’ll tell you in more detail how a white guy came to be writing on race.

Voices in the Walls 2

Yesterday I told you how Voices in the Walls began, then stalled. Part of the problem lies in what I would call my philosophy of fiction, if I were inclined toward formality and talked like a critic.

I don’t think first in terms of plot and action. Before I know the details of my story, I get to know my main character. I get to know his strengths and – more importantly – his weaknesses. I don’t care as much how he is going to get from A to B, as I care why he wants to get from A to B.

Of course, that isn’t the whole story or I would be writing sermons instead of novels. How a character achieves his goals, or fails to achieve them, is the backbone of fiction. I work very hard to make the plot move forward through scenes which are both exciting and believable. But that is the job of day to day writing. I don’t want to know the details of what is going to happen the my people too far in advance.

I usually know generally where my novel is going, and I know exactly why it is going there. I know in some detail the events of the next few chapters, but the rest of the story is as much a surprise to me as it is to my characters.

Did I mention that I rewrite a lot?

*****

My main character, Matt Williams is a personal surrogate. That’s a bit more than saying that he is based on my personal experiences. He exists to work out the same issues I had to work out when I was his age.

My personal story – on the surface anyway – would freeze me at the keyboard, unable to type because of sheer boredom. The issues that moved me, however, are important. I can off load them onto Matt, then dump him into the last days of peace just before the beginning of the Civil War, and now we’ll have a story people will read.

As I explained Monday over in A Writing Life, I was raised white in a white town, with no black people in sight. I had no opinions of my own on race, but the opinions around me were all negative. When the civil rights movement began, what I saw on television convinced me that everyone around me was wrong, and the black people were right.

That’s a story worth a novel, but not the kind of novel I write. I lived it, but I wouldn’t want to read it.

Dumping it onto Matt Williams’ head, however, changes everything.

*****

Enough chit chat for now. Tomorrow we’ll look at the prolog to Voices, and talk more later.     more tomorrow

83. Homegrown Terror, 1989, (2)

If you didn’t read yesterday’s post, this will make no sense. Slide on down to post 82. We’ll wait.

The non-Anglo students at my school were Mexican or Mexican-American. I never knew which were native to the U.S., which were legal immigrants, and which were illegals. No one told me, no one told me to ask, and I didn’t need to know. I did try to teach equality and tolerance whenever the opportunity arose, like my alter ego Neil McCrae.

*****

Neil had not had a good day. He had obtained a video of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to show to his students in connection with the holiday. His morning class had responded with very little enthusiasm when he tried to get them to discuss what it meant. There were no black children at Kiernan, and Neil had not been able to convince them that the civil rights Dr. King had fought for were for all of them. To these children the events of the fifties and sixties were another world, as foreign as ancient Athens. They were indifferent to it all.

His afternoon class was even worse. He had almost reached the point of giving up in disgust and trying some other tactic, when Bill Campbell came to the door of his classroom and motioned for Neil to join him outside. The look on Bill’s face alerted Neil that something serious had happened.

“I just got a phone call from Elaine Sanders. There has been a shooting at one of the elementary schools in Stockton. Apparently, there were a bunch of dead and wounded. Elaine wanted us to be on the alert.”

Bill’s words were just words. The reality of them did not hit Neil at once. He said, “On the alert for what?”

“I don’t know. Strangers on campus; anything like that.”

Since the American Navy had accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner the previous summer there had been talk of terrorist reprisals, and American schools were one of the targets being threatened. If that was the case, and the school which had already been struck was so close . . .

Neil found himself searching the playground with his eyes, and at the time it did not seem melodramatic. He said, “What do you want me to do?”

“Don’t say anything to your students, but be on the alert. Join Tom and me out front when the buses come to pick them up. It’s late enough in the afternoon that we probably won’t have any parents coming in to pick up their children because they heard it. If some parent comes in, get their child out of the classroom without a fuss. If we can manage it, I want to get these kids home with their parents before they hear about it.”

Bill went on to pass the word and Neil returned to his classroom. Bill’s words “a bunch of dead and wounded” rang in his head as he sat down and looked at his kids. Little Randi Nguyen with her boundless energy; Rabindranath who was calm and bright and utterly without a sense of humor; Lisa Cobb with her erratic behavior and terrible puns; even Jesse Herrera. Dead or wounded . . .; he had to shake his head to drive the vision away.

The bell for the last break of the day caught him by surprise and he jumped. Somebody laughed, then hid his laughter. The students all rushed for the door. Neil was on his feet in an instant and out the door to pace the playground in paranoid fear. All of the other teachers were out, exchanging worried glances and saying nothing.

When the buses came, a phalanx of teachers was there to protect their students from an enemy who never appeared.

This excerpt concludes tomorrow.

Voices in the Walls 1

I began the post Serial on August 31, 2015 because I had a backlog of short material I wanted to share. That well has run dry, but I still have a stock of novels and fragments.

Today the next phase begins, with a long fragment worth reading on it’s own merit, which is also tied closely to the next six weeks of posts in A Writing Life and offers a look over my shoulder at a work-in-progress.

NOTE – I said fragment. You might find this to be an Edwin Drood kind of experience. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I know that Serial is supposed to be fiction, but you are going to have to put up with some reminiscence to set the stage for the weeks that follow.

How often do you get to see an author’s work in progress? Steinbeck gave a fascinating and unique vision in his Journal of a Novel which detailed his thoughts on the novel East of Eden, but I can’t think of another instance.

I know that I would not be able to keep up an ongoing self-commentary while I am working on a novel. While in progress, novels are all consuming. Afterward, the work itself remains but the act of writing fades. Right now, I have a hard time remembering what year I wrote which part of some of my novels.

Some writers begin by knowing where their story will end, then write a gripping hook, and proceed from A to Z in a logical manner. If you are a would-be writer out to build a career, I suggest that you emulate this logical pattern.

I don’t. I am slow planner, a fast writer, and an unending tweaker, tinkerer and re-writer.  If I could manage to fully outline a novel at the outset, I wouldn’t be able to write it. There would be no fun left in the project, just the literary equivalent of paint-by-numbers.

Which brings us to Voices in the Walls, a fragment I plan to use for several purposes over the next several weeks. I need to explain why I have such a fragment.

As I explained in post 55 (also called Voices in the Walls), a tour guide at the Washington Irving mansion in New York said that the house had been a station on the underground railroad, and that the family could sometimes hear noises through the walls while escaping slaves were hiding in the basement. I heard the story in 1986. Some time in the next year, as best I can remember, I roughly laid out the sequence of events that would make up the story and began writing. After a month or two, on page 45, I stalled. It should have been a temporary cessation, but events intervened.

This was a busy time in my life. After years of writing-induced poverty, I had begun teaching, had settled into that life, and was finally able to take long vacations during the summer. My wife and I spent the summer of 1986 touring the east coast by car where we heard the Washington Irving story, then we spent the summers of 1987 and 1988 in Europe. We were able to do that on a teacher’s salary because we had no kids and because we were cheap. We slept in a tent, ate bread and apples, and lived like teenagers (or homeless people) even though we were both forty.

This was the period during which I wrote my teaching novel Symphony in a Minor Key (post 35, and as a Christmas excerpt here in Serial). As soon as I had finished Symphony, I turned our experiences living close to the ground in Europe into Raven’s Run (post 24), a contemporary thriller. Since I was teaching full time and catching up on living, those two and a fragment novels took about a decade to complete.

By that time I was hungry to get back to science fiction and fantasy, so Voices continued to lie fallow.     more tomorrow

82. Homegrown Terror, 1989, (1)

“Life is not a well told tale.  Things come out of nowhere, and in their wake, everything is changed.”

On the day after Martin Luther King day in 1989, terror struck Stockton, California. I was teaching in a small middle school about forty miles away and writing a novel about being a middle school teacher. As I said in post 35, I had decided to have events in my novel mirror events in the real world, not knowing what a trap I had laid for myself. The next three posts are an except from that novel. For factual research, I had only to open the day’s newspaper.

Terror

Life is not a well told tale.  Things come out of nowhere, and in their wake, everything is changed. There is frequently no warning, and even afterward, those events may make no sense.

In Stockton, thirty miles north of Kiernan School, at about eleven thirty in the morning, a distracted young loner named Patrick Purdy parked his car outside Cleveland Elementary School. As he left his car, he used a fourth-of-July sparkler to light a pipe bomb in the front seat, and entered the school yard through an unlocked gate in the fence. He crossed a grassy field, rounded a classroom building and waited there watching the playground where the students were at recess. He was wearing a 9mm automatic pistol and carrying an assault rifle.

Purdy had attended that school for four years when he was a child. At that time it had been a white, middle class neighborhood. Now the community was filled with southeast Asian refugees. Most of the children in the playground were Asian.  Purdy had told acquaintances how much he hated Asians.

Two things happened almost at once. The bomb Purdy had left in his car exploded, and the bell ending the recess period rang.  The children turned from their play and ran back toward their classrooms. Purdy raised his AK-47 and calmly, matter-of-factly, fired a burst of thirty rounds into the mass of students. They fell, screaming and bleeding, or silent and already dead.

He replaced the ammunition clip and fired again.  A teacher herding her children toward safety was shot down, and more students fell. Teachers inside the building at Purdy’s back huddled on the floor with their students, but he did not turn in their direction. He walked to his right, crossing in front of them, still firing into a school yard now littered with huddled heaps of the dead and wounded.

He rounded the far corner of the building just as the first sirens began to sound in the distance. Laying aside his assault rifle, he pulled out his pistol, put the barrel of it to his chin, and fired once.

He was dead when the first officers arrived at the scene.  Five students lay dead. Twenty-nine students and a teacher lay wounded.

*****

Terror was not invented on that day, nor did it end with Stockton. However, no other event ever struck so close to home for me. I went back to school the following day in a school little different from Cleveland Elementary. Our ethnics were Mexican, but so what? Mexican, southeast Asian, or Black – or, in other decades, Polish, Japanese, Irish, or Italian, so what?

I didn’t want to write about Purdy and his handiwork, but I did. It did not exploit the children of Stockton, but honored them by not hiding the truth.

More follows in the next two posts.

Prince of Exile, 12

5.

A brazier stood on iron legs at the foot of the King’s bed. Croayl the priest sprinkled sandalwood on the coals. As the scent spread through the room the King opened his milky eyes and said, “Do not bury me while I am still breathing.”

Croyal moved closer to the King, touched his dry cheek, and laid his hand on the King’s hand. Both hands were long and bony, darkened and weakened now with age, but they had both been strong hands in their youths. Croyal said, “For weeks I have asked you, as your priest, to repent. I fear for your soul if you do not. Now I ask as your brother. Do not go into that cold night unclean.”

“Can you?”

The King’s voice was hoarse and weak. Croyal leaned closer and asked, “Can I what?”

“Can you, for one hour, be my brother again, and not a priest?”

“I cannot stop being what I am. Either part of what I am.”

“Nor can I. As my brother, I have loved you even when it was not easy. As a priest, I would spit in your face if I had the strength.”

“I know.”

“I, too, can only be what I am. I repent of nothing. I abjure nothing. I have lived my life with all my heart and I only regret leaving it. I regret no part of it.”

“Is there nothing you would change?”

The King was silent for a while. The numbness had reached his stomach, and within minutes it would no longer matter that the brother he loved was also a priest who ranted at him. His hand tightened on Croyal’s and he said, “I would give anything to see my wife’s face again.”

*****

We were unseen as Croyal held the King’s dead hand. Greyleaf stood a little apart. That which was corruptible lay cooling on the bed. We watched as the incorruptible and timeless essence of the King rose up and looked around bemused. He beheld Greyleaf; there was shock in his eyes, then tears. She moved forward into his arms. I could not hear what was said, but I could see their faces. I would gladly die to feel the happiness I saw there – if the dead could die again.

Their bodies were melting together; going smoky; gone.

I turned to the Prince and caught a look of longing on his face. I said, “I thought . . .”

The Prince replied, “The King’s exile was ending, not beginning. It started the day she died. He will never be one of us, and Greyleaf will no longer be tortured and half complete. They have found their peace in one another – again.”

“And you? And the rest of us?”

For a moment I glimpsed broad vistas of eternity and deep valleys of pain in his lean, handsome face. Then he restored his customary look of calm and said, “For each of you, your exiles will end. But I am the Prince of Exile.” finis

81. Whiter Than White

Today is Martin Luther King day, separated from Black History Month by two weeks. I plan to combine them into a six week period devoted largely to black/ethnic history. Non-related posts will intervene – Jan 27, for example, gets special treatment as the anniversary of the Apollo One fire. Most of the posts, however, will be on ethnic subjects.

Why so much time devoted by a white guy in a blog largely about writing science fiction? This post and next Monday’s will explain.

Whiter than White

I loved my father. Whatever else I say, don’t lose sight of that. He was a good man by the standards of his day, but that day has passed. He wasn’t a racist by the standards of his day. By today’s standards, he would be.

Of course he changed over the years, and if he were still alive, he would still be changing. We all do. But I am thinking of 1966. When Negroes (people didn’t use the words black or African-American yet) marched in Selma and elsewhere, my father shook his head in dismay and said that if the troublemakers would just leave the good colored people alone, everything would be fine.

If that shocks you, let me offer a taste of history – at that time, most of the country agreed with him.

I didn’t have an opinion yet. I had never met a black person. There was one black man who farmed somewhere in the area. I saw him go by in his pickup once in a while, but that was as close to a black person as I had been. (See post 46.)

I had never met a Jew. I had never met a Spanish speaker, nor an Italian, nor a Mormon. Certainly not a Muslim; actually, I had never heard of Muslims. There was one Catholic boy who attended our school briefly. He wasn’t well treated and he didn’t stay.

You get the picture. Not just white – WHITE. And not just Protestant, but Southern Baptist. And not just Southern Baptist, but small-town-Southern-Baptist; not like those liberals down in Tulsa. There were so many Baptists in town that the local high school didn’t dare have a prom. No dancing was allowed.

There were just a few families in the town, each one much like the other. You couldn’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting a Logsdon, or a Logsdon’s inlaw.

But then those black people went marching, and were met with clubs and dogs and firehoses. And when my father (and everybody else’s fathers) said it was their own fault, I couldn’t buy it. When I saw them bloodied and beaten, yet standing firm for freedom and dignity, I knew they were right and we were wrong.

When they fought for their own freedom, they also gave this Oklahoma white boy his freedom. They gave me a new way of looking at the world, and I am grateful to this day.

Prince of Exile, 11

In the morning, he was gone. And she was pregnant, although it took her a month to discover it.

“Any sensible girl would have been frightened or furious, but Mara had lost the capacity for facing life in its raw state of truth. She decided she was not pregnant; she had merely miscounted the days.

“By the time three more months had passed, even her capacity for invention could not explain away the thickening of her belly. But there were other inventions. Her man had been called away on a dangerous mission, or kidnapped by bandits. As the stories grew, she grew; and her parents grew angry with her fantasies. Now, too late, they demanded that she face the truth.

“As the months moved by, her parents turned away from her. The people of the village had been weary of her voice long before her downfall, and would have nothing to do with her fabrications. She withdrew into her room and into herself. There she stayed through the hot month of August, swollen huge with child and without one human soul who was willing to listen to her.

“She sought out the memory of her lover, but she could not recall his face. The man had faded, displaced by the fantasy she had made of him. Now that fantasy faded as well, displaced by a still greater fantasy.

“She had lain with God himself.

“All that burning August, she sprawled in misery on her narrow bed and told herself the story again and again until it blotted out her shame, blotted out her pain, blotted out the heat, blotted out her parents screaming disbelief, blotted out the disgust of the villagers.

“She bore a son and raised him alone in a small hut behind her father’s inn. All day long she rocked him in her arms, crooned to him, and told him of his impending greatness. She called him Isus, and she raised him to believe that the world would love him and believe in him.

“Isus went out to tell the world of his divinity, but the world was impatient. It turned on Isus and killed him. Mara stood at the foot of the scaffold where they hanged him, and the last words she heard him say were, ‘You foolish men, I have brought you a vision, and you have turned it aside.’

“Mara’s spirit was shattered — for a little while. Then she turned from the village where she had been born, and went out to raise up a religion in her Son’s name.”

*****

The Prince leaned back against a rock, content for the moment. He said, “An ugly story. Disjointed; lacking in balance.”

“The true ones often are.”

“Yes. I saw Mara recently, still up to her old tricks.”

The ragged stranger laughed and said, “Mother never learns.” more tomorrow

Prince of Exile, 10

We rode through the afternoon, ever higher, and at the crest of the mountain range, in a little sheltered space beside the pass, we found another traveler sitting beside his campfire. The Prince rode up to him and asked, “What is the ultimate truth?”

“Damned if I know, Prince. Get down and eat.”

The Prince grinned at the apparition who sat so casually beside the fire. He was skinny and ragged with a body much scarred, but insouciant humor danced in his eyes.

The Prince stepped down and walked up to the fire, extending his hands to the warmth, and said, “If you have no wisdom, how will you pay for my company?”

“I’ll tell you a story.”

“Good,” the Prince said, seating himself and reaching for the stewpot. “Stories are better than wisdom, and sometimes better than food.”

“But never,” the stranger suggested, “better than women or wine.”

The Prince shook his head, unconvinced, and said, “That would depend on the woman.”

“You have already heard my story!”

“I have heard all the stories, but never mind. Tell me again.”

*****

“This is the story,” the stranger said, “of Mara and Isus . . .

“There once was a young woman who could not tell truth from fantasy. She was loved by her parents, but no one could love her half so much as she loved herself. She felt that she was beautiful. She felt that she was a princess, stolen away in her infancy and given to peasants to raise. She felt that a fine knight would come to take her away. She felt that somewhere in the wide world there was one man – but only one man – fit to be her mate and that when he came into her life, he would fall passionately in love at the mere sight of her beauty.

“I do not know if she was beautiful. Had she been truly stunning, she could not have matched the visions she had of herself.

“She spun tales of glory about herself and told them to her parents. Surely she knew at first that they were fantasy.  But her parents indulged her, laughed with her, praised her imagination, and never forced her to see what was true and what was false.

“Ultimately, she met a young man who was passing through her village. She fell in love with him, not truly knowing what love was. She took passing affection and a bit of lust and built, on that foundation, huge cathedrals of imaginings of what their love would be.

“The man was not a liar, but he was no more truthful than any other man. When he spoke of love in those moments while their bodies were locked together, he did not expect to be taken so seriously. But Mara had no judgment, only illusions. To her, their passion was like the first man and woman. He was too kind to voice his disappointment that she was a clumsy virgin, and in the kindness with which he held his tongue, she saw a love so deep that it struck him dumb.

“In the morning, he was gone. And she was pregnant, although it took her a month to discover it. more tomorrow

80. And Don’t Begin With And

yol 8This is the last of eight how-to posts on writing. I haven’t exhausted the subject, but I want to quit before I exhaust my readers.

Your Own Language:
And don’t begin with and

Here is a rule that was strictly enforced in the antediluvian days of my youth. I think today’s teachers have largely given up, and thank goodness. The rule is: Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.

This sentence is acceptable:     “Every morning he saddled his horse carefully, and every evening he wiped him down with equal care.”

According to the rule, this construction is not acceptable:     “Every morning he saddled his horse carefully. And every evening he wiped him down with equal care.”

And yet, this third version is “correct” again.     “Every morning he saddled his horse carefully. Every evening he wiped him down with equal care.”

What? This makes no sense – unless you first accept the fallacy that each sentence should be complete in itself. This is the same completeness fallacy that leads teachers to teach paragraphs in isolation (see yesterday’s post).

In any story, essay, letter, email, or post, the writing flows from the first word to the last. How we break up that writing – where we put periods, commas, paragraphs, dashes, colons, and semicolons – is entirely a matter of pacing.

Whether you prefer eighteenth century novels with sentences a hundred words long and a paragraph break every other page, or something modern with rapid fire, disjointed chattering, every story has to engage the reader at its beginning, then carry through to some reasonable level of closure.

It’s that simple.

Children have no problem with closure in their stories. At the end, the hero wakes up. Hemingway usually had no problem either; at the end of a typical Hemingway novel, the hero dies. But even that isn’t complete closure. When Robert Jordan is lying on the hillside at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the enemy is closing in and there is no doubt he’s about to die. But what will happen to Maria? Will his coming sacrifice save his comrades? We don’t know.

As the holy men told the Prince of Exile, “Every true story ends in death, but no true story ever ends.” Closure is necessary, but never complete.

How much closure do you need? Thomas Anderson has said twice in reviews that the endings of my novels leave him feeling unsatisfied. Fair enough, yet they satisfy me. It is entirely a matter of taste.

Of course, there are limits. I once read a novel by an otherwise reputable author who ended it in mid-sentence because, just as his character has come to understand the meaning of life, he gets hit by a bus. That’s cheating.

There are more novels and blogs yet to write, and that’s closure enough for now.