Compass and Lamp

I started this blog in June, 2010, after a daylong blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. I was trying to write a fantasy novel, and popular wisdom at the time was that in this 21st century, aspiring writers needed to learn self promotion, which requires an online platform. I dutifully created Facebook and Twitter accounts, and TheFirstGates. Fortunately, blogging quickly took on a life of its own.

Almost from the start, I broke every rule the teacher of that blogging class presented, chief among them, the “one topic per blog” rule. He had eight blogs. The mere thought of that makes me tired! Though clearly an A-type, I am blessed with a strong laziness instinct, which often saves me from creating extra hassle for myself. A firm believer in Hillman’s model of the “polytheistic psyche,” I give most of the personalities time to roam around here. Continue reading

Must We Remain A Nation of Small Ideas?

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929-2018

Ursula Le Guin died on January 23, at the age of 88. I first encountered her writing in the seventies. After multiple readings of The Lord of the Rings, I was hungry for more heroic-quest fantasy novels. There were plenty of them, but the only one I remember is Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy (1968-1972).

At a time when science fiction and fantasy were viewed as escapist genres, decades before YA become a lucrative fad, and before we knew about Jedi, Ursula Le Guin gave us the coming of age tale of Ged, who becomes a powerful wizard only after learning that his most powerful enemy is himself.

Many of this week’s online tributes and memorials have included excerpts from her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It is worth emphasizing this passage from her six minute address:

URSULA LE GUIN: I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. …

Le Guin’s call for creative artists, and by extension, all of us, to imagine more life affirming ways to live on this planet underlines the poverty of our current public discourse, which confines our national imagination to ever more narrow ruts. We suffer not from fake news but from trivial news.

The last three administrations have spent $5.6 trillion on warfare since 9/11. We’ve killed more than 200,000 civilians (as of 2015) and lost more than 5,000 of our own troops (as of 2016), but none of us feel any safer. Where is our national debate on what we hope to accomplish and the nature of our exit strategy? It is non-existent. Instead, we argue on Twitter about whether football players taking a knee is disrespectful to troops…

The day Ursula Le Guin died, Amazon opened the prototype of an automated grocery store that doesn’t require cashiers. Two days later I saw the picture of Norway’s prototype, zero emissions, automated container ship, that will be entirely crewless by 2020. Panera and McDonalds are trying out order kiosks that could eliminate cashiers and – the list goes on and on. Where is the national debate on strategies for the near term, when automation eliminates millions of jobs before new technologies open up ways to replace them? That, conversation too, is non-existent. It’s more politically expedient to blame foreign nations and foreign nationals for “stealing” our jobs…

We can think of many more essential debates that are not taking place because of the cowardice of our leaders. Le Guin, of course, would shake her head at the notion that today’s politicians or CEO’s are remotely capable of being “the realists of a larger reality.”

Her legacy is a lifetime of visioning other worlds and other ways of living in this one. It’s up to people who care to move that vision forward. Sadly, it seems increasingly certain that the world we would wish to live in is one more thing that will not be “Made in America…”

California Writer’s Week, Oct. 15-21 – Local Seminars

California Writer’s Week begins tomorrow. Created by Legislative Resolution Number 2170, it’s purpose is “teaching, encouraging and showcasing writing during…the third week in October.”

To honor this opportunity, the California Writer’s Club, Sacramento Branch, will host six writing seminars, led by members of the club, at different locations. All are encouraged to attend!

California Writer’s Club, Sacramento – monthly breakfast meeting this Friday

The Sacramento branch of the California Writer’s Club will host a breakfast at Coco’s, in Citrus Heights this Friday, from 9:00 – 1100 am. Featured speaker will be author Barbara Link, who will discuss “Creating Compelling Characters.”

Details are here: CWC First Friday Network

Happy 90th Anniversary to…

…the Sacramento Branch of the California Writer’s Club, founded October 31, 1925.

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Here’s some info from the brochure at the celebration lunch last Saturday:

“Club history lore is that the founding of the California Writer’s Club emerged in part from picnics and companionship of Jack London and his writing friends up in the Oakland Hills, home of Joaquin Miller…”

Miller was a celebrated poet at the time.

“In 1909, those informal outdoor  salons (‘a blanket’ and a basket of chow’) evolved into the CWC.”

The Sacramento Branch was the first of a number of branches founded throughout the state.  CWC President, David George, presented us with a new charter, as the original one was long lost. Margie Yee Webb, our branch president, showed an archival print of the founding Sacramento members – the men in suits and tuxes, the women in dresses and evening gowns.  In those early days, they met for dinner and discussion, then adjourned to someone’s house for more conversation and drinking.

CWC old

The schedules, conventions, and mythologies of writer’s and poets have changed over the last 90 years; now we meet for breakfast or lunch, usually in jeans, and coffee is the libation of choice.

Jack London – who once worked as an oyster pirate and was jailed for a month for vagrancy – was the first creative artist, in any medium, to earn a million dollars from his work. One of my early blogging efforts, posted five years ago this month, was the account of a trip to Jack London State Park. I recommend a visit to all who enjoy his work.

The final presentation of the day was by literary agent, Laurie McLean, of the Fuse Literary Agency, who discussed why no writer needs an agent on the road to publication anymore. She also discussed those things an agent can do for us.

The gist of her talk was that we are only witnessing the start of the new forms of storytelling digital media will enable. She cited one example, popular in Japan, of serialized novels for cell phone apps that one can purchase 2,000 words at a time – a 21st century version of the way Conan-Doyle released Sherlock Holmes, a chapter at a time, in The Strand.

“What and who are you writing for?” Laurie asked.  If we need the assurance that comes from acceptance by a traditional publisher, then we need to play the traditional game, but if our goal to get our story into the hands of readers, then new, more direct avenues are opening all the time.

Despite Jack London’s success as a writer,  one of his greatest legacies may be the California Writers Club. It has nourished writers all over the state for the last 90 years, and hopefully will be here at the century’s end, encouraging those who have not been born yet, who will work in media that have not yet been invented.

Her Poison Pen

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

Dame Agatha Christie, 1890-1976

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Agatha Christie as the best selling novelist of all time. Over the years, I’ve done my part in helping to make her so.

Christie’s preferred fictional murder weapon was poison. Of the more than 300 people who died in her stories, at least 100 ate or drank something they did not live to regret. In a fun segment on last week’s Science Friday, Ira Plato interviewed Kathryn Harkup, chemist and author of A is for Arsenic: the Poisons of Agatha Christie.

From 1914 to 1918, Agatha Christie volunteered as a nurse at a local hospital, and worked in the dispensary when it opened. Back then, all pharmaceuticals were mixed on site, and none of our modern restrictions on drugs were in place, so of necessity, Christie acquired a detailed knowledge of theoretical and applied chemistry in order to pass her apothecary’s assistant exam in 1917. She learned what to do, and more importantly for her future literary career, what not to do with medicines. She was tutored by a local pharmacist who carried a lump of curare in his pocket, “because it made him feel powerful.”

Christie started writing in her twenties and did not meet with instant success. Kathryn Harkup gives an example of the plot complexity of her first published novel, A Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920.

Spoiler Alert

The elderly victim is killed by with a lethal dose of strychnine, which at that time, was given, in measured doses, to the elderly as a tonic.  The killer, however, added bromide, a popular sleeping powder, to the solution, which caused the strychnine to precipitate out as crystals at the bottom of the bottle. The final teaspoon would be lethal, and the killer could arrange an airtight alibi.

Harkup’s research revealed that Agatha Christie had studied the effect of combining these two drugs as a lesson in what not to do, in the course of her apothecary training.

If you have ever watched a Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple movie, or purchased one of the two billion copies of Agatha Christie books that have been sold, you’ll want to check out the Science Friday interview!

Where did this come from?

notebook

A few days ago, looking for a piece of scratch paper, I picked up a 5″ x 8″ spiral notebook from a desk in the back room. I flipped it open to some curious notes on fairytales – and I cannot remember where they came from. Not from any book I possess, nor from any lecture I remember. Did they come from a blog post? And if so, why did I take the time to jot down two pages of notes without bookmarking the post?

The words were those of a writer who said, “I am eager to show what fairytale techniques have done for my writing and what they can do for yours.”  This is curious, because most of what followed – the “four elements of traditional fairytales” that he or she discussed violate the usual advice given in writing books and seminars.  Here the four elements as I recorded them.

1) Flatness – flat characters (no psychological depth), which allows depth in the reader’s response. Eg., the child who escapes monsters does not grow up to be a neurotic adult. Also, few fairytale characters are named.

2) Abstract –  Few details given. Fairytales tell, they seldom show.

3) Intuitive logic –  “nonsensical sense”  This happened then that. Causality not shown. Events may not be connected except by narrative proximity. But inside that disconnect resides a story that enters and haunts you deeply. Details of fairytales exist apart from “plot” and are a “violation of the rule that things must make sense.” Dreamlike.

4) Normalized magic:  breaks the notion that the more realistic a story element, the more valuable.

All four of these points are accurate statements of fairytale characteristics. The idea that they hook the listener’s imagination to “fill in the blanks” may help explain why fairytales make far better oral narratives than literary fiction.

At the same time, I can’t think of any published fiction that follows such a structure, least of all modern fairytale retellings. For one thing, since the 19th century, psychologizing has been a favorite pastime for almost all lovers of folklore.

The unknown author of these notes made a few more statements I wrote down:

“Every since I was a child, I have been happiest living in the sphere of story.”  ( me too!!!)

“Trickery is the instinct to know when something is wrong.”

“I will end by saying that story is what makes us human.”

Whoever the unknown author is, you have my thanks (a second time) for your most stimulating thoughts on a genre I love!

How weird news teaches us great storytelling

This post was a (literal) coffee-snorter. Be warned, if you have a cup, put it down, and if you’re eating a blueberry muffin, swallow before reading this epic tale of Walmart brigands, trailer park ninjas, the Darwin awards, and other tales of so-called real life as stranger than fiction.

The Red Pen of Doom

Every day, there are real stories in the morning newspaper that make you snort coffee out your nose or choke on a blueberry muffin. Note: This is why journalists call such pieces “muffin chokers.”

Yet the daily weirdness is more than funny. If you dissect these stories, you can learn deep storytelling lessons from the shallow end of the journalism pool.

Here’s a real story that just happened in my state: Man steals RV from Wal-Mart parking lot, leads police on wild chase. Swerves into sleepy little town where he knocks cars into front yards and such, then blasts through a house and crashes. Runs out, strips down to his underwear and invades a home to steal girl clothes. Cops catch him and haul him off.

This is pretty typical of a weird news story, and not simply because it started in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart — and yeah…

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