Open Wounds


A-Z Retrograde

…motion in opposite direction of the motion of something else…

Two weeks have passed and I still haven’t written a blog post. I have been working on my book though, so that is something. Still, there’s time and distance to look at the experience and that, also is a good thing. So here are some thoughts on the A-Z challenge and blogging in general.

  • Blogging is hard work. I don’t care what anyone says. It is writing and it is challenging, and it takes time and it is hard work.  I know if I followed my wife’s suggestion and wrote short that I would be a better blogger but I tend to write long and meander. It is not a good blogger habit. So for 26 posts I tried to meander less and work quicker. When I was lost in side bars, side tracks, asides, and digressions I tried to find my way home and back to the point as quickly as possible.
  • If was impossible for me to visit three blogs a day, much less five. I might have averaged out about 1 a day. It is only because I write slow and meander (see bullet one). But I did see 26 new blogs and found some great ones to follow. The blogging community is an eye-opening, huge group of absolutely crazy individuals with fascinating opinions and stuff (read – all kinds of shit, good shit and bad shit and all kinds of shit that’s in-between) to share with the world. My favorite blog to look at was Kristen Pelfrey’s, not because I found her blog during the A-Z challenge as I’d read her blog before… but because I found myself compelled to follow her post by post whenever I checked in on her work. She is a woman passionate about writing, about art, about learning, and about her angel potatoes. Each of her posts was a gem and worth going back for a second read.
  • Choosing a theme was a good idea for me. My Greek theme played out well in helping me to structure my posts and give me a hook so I meandered less and actually, more than less, found a point to talk about. But… some letters were hard to come up with post for ( those with no Gods or Heroes or creatures beginning with the letters like Y, W, F and others). I find, though that constraints can sometimes be great creative devises. If I had left myself an open field to work with for each post I might have spent many more hours staring at the screen and imagining myself to be Stephen King (has anyone read his new Dark Tower book? I have to get that – I digress…). When I performed improvisational comedy with KLAATU my favorite improvs were the ones with more constraints. Free-form always troubled me. I liked a space to work within rather than the whole universe. It’s a different kind of creativity and one I work well with.
  • I really enjoyed writing the posts. I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment as I worked my way forward. Some of the pieces I wrote even ended up having some meaning to me and perhaps others – though more than anything I feel like I write to myself when I blog. I wonder if others do the same?

Finally there is the case of one Mathew MacNish, blogger extraordinaire, and the master of the QQQE. I tried the A-Z challenge because he was one of the masterminds in charge and if he was involved it meant I should probably give it a try. Mathew is a butt-kicking blogospherical expert and he hasn’t led me wrong yet. Plus he’s a friend and those two things together work magic.

On another note I read a bunch of wonderful books over the month that I’ll mention in future posts. But I will say that at least one was an adult novel and another, not the adult novel, my son can not read. On second thought my son can’t read either. Even though he’ll use his tried and true leverage, “But I read The Hunger Games” on me. It won’t work. Nope. Not this time. I will not fold for the YA book was brutal B R U T A L brutal.

And finally, I’m going to White House on Wednesday. Seriously. I am. I have a meeting with some colleagues about a project I’ve been involved with and we’ll be sitting down with Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) members in the White House, on the other side of the wrought iron fence – a place I’ve never been and never thought I would go. The experience relates to writing in a very distinctive way. My day job (running a training institute at a non-profit that works in the fields of AIDS and Drug Treatment amongst other issues) is challenging and hard but also interesting and provides me opportunity to do work that I think is important in helping others. As a writer it’s good and bad to have a job like this, good because it’s good to work at something you care about. Bad because it can suck all your time and energy away from you. What’s the best job to have if you’re a writer? More on that another day.

For now, I’ve meandered enough and need to find my way back home. Now… which way was it?

Y is for Yakoots

There is no letter Y in Greek, either ancient or modern. And what’s interesting is some posit that that’s why there are so few English words beginning with the letter Y – since Greek and Latin are root languages for English. So why Yakoots and what’s the connection. Work with me, Ill get there.

First, Yakoots is a word for a nomadic Mongolian tribe native of Northern Siberia most likely of Turkish stock who are also mainly pastoral in their habits (which I like to think means they listen to a pastor a lot, but I could be wrong). There is some Mongol in my heritage – being a Jew whose family was pushed, plundered, nudged, conquered, and pogromed from one part of the Ukraine east, south, and north from Poland to Hungary and Rumania (and eventually to the US but I’m pretty sure that was by boat right around 1900 – hello Bronx and Brooklyn!)

Second it is one very cool sounding word that could easily be a curse if you think about the way it sounds – it is almost spit out of the mouth.

Third is reminds me of Yakutsk from RISK which is one of the great world conquest and domination games ever made – just behind Diplomacy which if you’ve never played you haven’t fully lived (it is a great simulation of the diplomatic wrangling of pre WWI that should be played in every World History class). Any word that reminds me of the game RISK is a good word.

Fourth, in Greek the word for nothing is tipota. And Yakoots with it’s image of life in Northern Siberia, desolate, cold, harsh, reflects this for me. As a writer being faced with nothing – the blank page – is both the most exciting and horrifying of prospects. Exciting because we will cross into Siberia and put footprints across the snow, filling that page with words. Horrifying because the journey may very well take us deep within ourselves and every inward journey is a journey not to be taken lightly.

X is for Xerxes

Xerxes is son of Darius who attempted an invasion of Greece and conquered a good part of the ancient world stopping at Greece (oh those damned stubborn Greeks). At 36 he took over his dad’s job and became self-proclaimed king of Persia, Great King, King of Kings, and King of Nations. Let’s just say he had a thing for being king. But the Greeks defeat him eventually and he goes back home only to be murdered by the commander of his royal bodyguard. It’s not always good to be a king.

So Xerxes is not Greek but he is an antagonist for the Greeks and the one for which great and heroic acts are required to be performed in order to defeat him – take Thermopylae for example and the stand of the 300 Spartans. And that’s just the one gets all the press. The naval battle at Salamis is a pretty neat little fight also and on a grand scale (let the Greek Fire loose!).

Antagonists then are the subject and Xerxes is the model. Is he evil? (Probably not but he certainly does have issues.) Does your antagonist have to be evil? (No, but it can make the story stronger sometimes if you’re playing up the good vs. evil angle.) Do you even need an antagonist? (You may not but you do need something for your protagonist to struggle towards or against even if it’s only him or her self.) Can your antagonist and your protagonist be the same person? (Yes, literally if you have a good Kirk bad Kirk going like that episode of Star Trek in the original series with William Shatner splitting himself and giving us smiling Shatner and sweating snearing Shatner. Or, as I mentioned before you can have your protagonist have to overcome his or her own limitations like lack of courage, or facing their past.)

Regardless of who the antagonist is, I like characters that I end up feeling for or seeing why they end up being who they are. It’s more complicated and nuanced a story but I find I enjoy them more. Would Darth Vader be the same if we didn’t eventually find out that he was Luke’s father and at some point regrets what he has done? Understanding why someone does bad things can help us feel for them, as uncomfortable as that can be. And if I feel for the bad guy I will feel that much more involved with the good guy. This is probably why a good bad guy can so easily steal a show, novel, movie. If written well, they are just so interesting.

Who are your favorite, authentic, fully fleshed antagonists (people, places, or pieces of self)?

V is for Venus

I was thinking vulpine (cunning) or vorpal (deadly) or valetudinarian (anxious about health) or vafrous (sly) but… I’m sticking with my it’s all Greek to me theme and working my way through the hard letters. A vastidity (vastness) of words in Greek starting with a V, there are not.  Actually there are none. There’s no V in Greek. So… I skipped a bit ahead in time and chose Venus who is the Roman version of Aphrodite, Goddess of love. Though because she’s Roman and not Greek she has her own spin on the love thing. She is not always venerous (lustful) or venary (in pursuit of sexual gratification), though she can be at times. She was not born but emerged out of the sea-foam, probably covered in varec (seaweed). But let us not vapulate (flog) the V anymore and use this as a vincular (connective) moment.

Just how important is a love story to your work? I’ve never thought of this in terms of my writing at least not in the context of do I write love stories? . I’ve not set out to write a love story (except for the first novel I ever wrote which must stay in the dark dark underworld of a drawer covered in dust and buried beneath later works even though it sometimes calls to me late at night to let it be free) before. Usually a story comes to mind and it may or may not have a love story in it. I find love in stories, happens, many times whether I want it to or not. What’s interesting to me is when I talk about this called love, I wonder who you, the reader imagine are the lovers and what kind of love it is. Are they male and female, two men, two females? Is it a love triangle? Love hexagon? Is there such a thing? What are the limitations we and society put on such things?

In my book Open Wounds my protagonist, Cyd Wymann, struggles with love – love from and for parents, parent figures, boys who are his friends and brothers, and a girl. Relationships are complicated and yet they are what make so many narratives pulse, whether there is love, ambivalence, or hate involved between the characters. A theme I find myself coming back to again and again in my work is the love of a boy for his father (or father figure) or what happens when there is none.

What are the themes of love that echo in your work? Which ones are violactic (flying above) and which are sequestered in the viridarium (Roman Garden)? Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

S is for Sisyphus

Sisyphus was one ruthless, murderous (at least three people and children as told  in stories about him), sly, crafty, iron-willed, Machiavellian, power-hungry, bastard of a Greek king. He was an absolute evil genius that regularly outsmarted Gods (Zeus and Persephone in particular) and mortals alike. Of course he took a fall eventually and Persephone (Goddess of the underworld) took him to task (after he played her the fool twice) and made him pay for all his trickery. His ultimate fate is to roll an immense boulder up a hill and upon getting it to the top watch it roll all the way back down, only to roll it back up, again and again. He’s probably (probably?) still at it right now. Now there’s a story to be written (Rick Riordan are you listening?). A Sisyphean task is one that is endless and can never be completed, no matter how hard you try.

Sometimes writing a novel seems like a Sisyphean task. It seems endless with restarts and stops. It is soul crushing at times (dealing with writer’s block), humbling (critiques and rejections, oh my), and the words the end seem like they are unreachable, no matter how close you get or how hard you try.

Which is why when you finish a first draft and write the end, it is so damned satisfying. No matter the rock rolls back down the hill for draft two through nine-teen. Because it doesn’t roll back down all the way and although the peak gets higher, it is a new peak to push the rock up to. And eventually, if we do our work well enough, we get to a top (after copy editing and final final editing and final final final editing with a publisher) and the damned thing doesn’t roll down at all.

Of course then it’s time to create a new rock to roll up the hill.

But for a few moments, on top of the hill, rock firmly in place and unable to roll back down, the view is pretty damn good and the air is very very sweet.

R is for Rhea

Rhea is the mother of the Olympian Gods (7 including Zeus) and wife of her own brother, Chronos. I mean, how many titans could there have been to choose from? Chronos eats all his kids but Rhea feeds him a stone (large one) swaddled in blankets instead of her last son, Zeus. Zeus escapes and as we all know from the Percy Jackson Tales (at least that’s been my refresher course) he rescues his siblings and puts the titans in their place. Saved by mom and a big swaddled stone.

Its made me think of mothers and their place in the books I’ve read recently. I just finished Michael Grants Gone – a wonderfully creepy story about kid survival practically without the presence of any mothers (or fathers) at all – even though one mother’s actions are key to the plot and kids act as “mothers” of different types. Mr. Grant can spin a tale and take it down some dark paths. But his tale represents the absent mother motif.

The present and struggling mother comes from A.S.King’s Everybody Sees the Ants – in which the mother swims to cope. She is not the protagonist but the story could not be told without her struggling presence. I love this book.

There’s also the mother with the heart of gold, the evil mother, the step-mother (good, bad or indifferent), the replacement mother, the oh my God what a mother (okay I just made that up), the mother who dies in the first scene or before (thank you Disney – that’s their speciality). How many others can you think of?

How do you write these characters as authentic human beings? Read King’s book to see. The mother is called the squid but she is not defined by her squidiness. As with any character in a book, so too in real life.

O is for Odysseus

O Brother, Where Art Thou? PosterUlysses PosterOdysseus for me is the quintessential hero. And as a writer for me, every hero’s journey in some way mirrors his.

Odysseus is blackmailed into fighting in the Trojan war and the siege of Troy. If he doesn’t go his son will be killed. He even faked madness to try to get out of it. He’s not interested in war, has a lovely wife, and idyllic home. He just wants to be left alone. On top of which an oracle tells him if he goes he’ll be gone a long long long time. So to save his son he goes. And the Gods are not happy after they sack Troy so they are all punished, Odysseus especially. He’ll travel for 10 years, lose all his crew, face Sirens, Cyclops, Calypso, Phoenicians (those perilous Phoenicians!), storms from Poseidon and he returns home to have to kill off all the suitors for his wife Penelope – who stayed true to him even though the full court press was on for her hand in marriage.

Odysseus is the man. If you’ve never seen Kirk Douglas play him in Ulysses you haven’t lived. Or if you haven’t seen Oh Brother Where Art Thou from the Cohen Brothers – a 1920’s version that sings (sometimes literally) – you need to rent it right now. And then there’s James Joyce’s’ Ulysses which takes the hero’s journey to its most mundane – what most call a literary masterpiece about a day in the life of two men in Dublin in 1904.

The protagonist in the book I’m working on now defeats a bully by blinding him with mud and gets the nickname, Nobody – mirroring the deeds of Odysseus in defeating the cyclops Polyphemus.

The Odyssey has been an inspiration for my writing since I saw Kirk Douglas play the hero when I was a kid. What hero’s journey inspired you?

By the way, Ulysses is the name in Greek and Odysseus is the name in Latin.

N is for Narcissus

Narcissus (Greek: Νάρκισσος) in Greek mythology was a hunter from the territory of Thespiae in Boeotia who was renowned for his beauty. He was exceptionally proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. Nemesis saw this and attracted Narcissus to a pool where he saw his own reflection in the waters and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus died. The Greeks don’t pull any punches. No happy endings here.

I had no idea the words Nemesis and Narcissus were linked. Nemesis is one of the Greed Goddesses of revenge but specifically for those who showed arrogance before the gods (in this case hubris – another great word). Narcissistic means vanity, conceit, egoism, selfishness, but it can also mean healthy self-love – though probably not in terms of masturbation. Come on. Did that not come into your head when you read that? No? then it’s just me. Back to this concept of narcissus and narcissism. Do you think writers are, by nature narcissistic? I wonder about this. We spend a lot of time by ourselves, wrapped up in our own worlds, thinking about our own words, blocking much of the external world out for as long as we can, or dare (diapers have to be changed, kids picked up from school, lovers loved, day jobs shown up to). I have on more than one occasion been accused by my wife of having an affair with my computer.

I prefer to think of this as an act of balance, spending time with myself and my work, which if it is to be done, must be done alone (I can’t socialize and write at the same time, can you?). Back to the balance. Healthy self-love is a bit new age-ish but it works for me. And good old Narcissus, stuck by his pool, is a good warning. One foot in both worlds and balanced between.

M is for Molṑn labé! (Come take them!)

Still of Gerard Butler and Vincent Regan in 300Molṑn labé!

“Come take [them]!”

King Leonidas of Sparta says this in response to King Xerxes of Persia’s demand that the Greek army lay down their arms before the Battle of Thermopylae. Tens of thousands against 300 and they say, “Come take them!” What were they, out of their minds?

The movie 300 (see it if you haven’t because it’s awesome) is one of the most chest-thumping, testosterone filled films I’ve seen in the last year. Maybe I don’t see many chest-thumpers or maybe it is just that visually stunning (it is). Or maybe it’s the classic story that grabs me in which 300 come-back-victorious-or-on-your-shield Spartans hold off a swarm of Persians at the small pass of Thermopylae so that their armies back home can organize. They buy time now for victory later. And… spoiler here … they all die in the process. It’s brutal. But the dialog is just amazingly chest-thumping. There’s so much testosterone in this film it is overflowing.

What’s fascinating to me is how caught up I was in the characters, the father and son, the two friends who are like brothers (they are all like brothers), the king who willingly sacrifices himself and his warriors for the greater good of his country, and the cripple who wants so bad to be a soldier and betrays them all.

The reviews were mediocre of this film when it came out so I did not see it until recently. Everyone said it was visually spectacular but that the story was weak. I didn’t see that at all. I saw tremendous violence surrounding characters, hard as nails, that I cared for. That’s what story is all about. Characters you care about placed in danger in some way that they have to somehow get out of or through or around – even if they do not survive. Extreme, yes, in this case, but also, compelling.

K is for Knossos

Knossos is a city veiled in myth, mystery and archeological digs. It symbolizes the capital of Crete from long ago and is the site of King Minos’ realm(Mr. Goldfinger himself), and the infamous Labyrinth – designed by the legendary artificer Daedalus (father to Icarus)  – and the Minotaur that prowled its corridors – eventually slain by the Athenian hero Theseus. The site of the dig is called Heraklion – which sounds bone-cracking to me – and sits at a port city on the north coast of Crete.

Everywhere you look in ancient Greece you have the hero’s journey repeated again and again and each story seems more colorful than the last. But for Knossos it’s all about the place.

Island, palace, throne room, Labyrinth of stone walls, the smell of decaying flesh pushed away by a breeze from the nearby Mediterranean Sea. The sun hot, making you sweat, the dust thick in the mid-day, the smell of your perspiration a cloak you can not get rid of so you get used to it.

Sights, smells, sounds, textures. They all come together to make place an element in a story. In my novel Open Wounds, some reviewers have said that New York City of the 1930’s and 1940’s is a character in the book, just as alive and breathing as the protagonist, Cid Wymann. One breathes life into the other.

How important is place in your writing?

Do writer’s perspire in your electronic dreams?

I is for Icarus

Icarus is a cautionary tale. Father Daedalus builds wings of feathers and wax to fly with – warns son, don’t go too close to the sun. Son flies too close and falls to the earth after his wings melt. Usually connected to the term hubris. Also connected to the term Icarus Complex (Psychiatry – A constellation of mental conflicts, the degree of which reflects the imbalance between a person’s desire for success, achievement, or material goods, and the ability to achieve those goals; the greater the gap between the idealized goal and reality, the greater the likelihood of failure.)

Sometimes I feel writers, all of us, are like Icarus, testing out our wings of wax and feathers, flying as close to sun as we can. The difference is our failures (those manuscripts we gave up on, or move on from, or let go of because we realized they just weren’t good enough – I have three of them that sit in my closet staring at me when I open the door and wondering if, when, I will go back to them, please, they say – take me out again!) we learn from and grow stronger from because we tried to see if they would fly. Testing out my work in the market place is the way for me to see if the wings are strong enough this time. If not, perhaps I just need to go back to the workshop and build better wings?

Notice when you’ve built better wings. It will carry you through the times the wings aren’t built good enough, cushion you on the nasty falls.

G is for Gorgons

THE GORGONES (or Gorgons) were three powerful, winged daemons named Medousa (Medusa), Sthenno and Euryale. Of the three sisters only Medousa was mortal, and so it was her head which King Polydektes of Seriphos commanded the young hero Perseus to fetch. He accomplished this with the help of the gods who equipped him with a reflective shield, curved sword, winged boots and helm of invisibility.

What are the writer’s Gorgons and what equipment does she carry with her to fight them off with? Here are my Gorgons and what I go into battle against them with.

Medusa is rejection. I have a heavy shield, thick armor, big butt-kicking boots, a large sword that makes cool swishing noises, many swear words in different languages, a wall to hit my head against, rose-colored glasses to see things in a different light, rationalizations that I can toss over my shoulder like grenades, and two dogs who don’t know anything about talent or the ability to write but who love me just the same.

Sthenno is doubt. My belief in myself is all I need to defeat her. And a large stick with spikes on the end. And someone to slip pizza under my door when I’m in self-doubt hell. And a reminder that I write because I have to. And a reminder that therapy is supposed to help with this kind of thing.

Euryale is success. To defeat her, I am armed with my wife and son who have told me again and again it is their job to make sure my head does not get so big it won’t fit in the room with the rest of me. I have my t-shirts from Shenandoah Joes Coffee Shop which say, “It’s all about the Joe,” on one side and “Joemamma,” on the other. And finally, I have a kind, friendly, good voice inside the right side of my head which whispers quietly to me reminding me to enjoy every moment that I can. Seriously. This is the good part. Right?

F is For Phobos (Fear)

Phobos is the Greek God of Horror and Fear. Interesting. It’s also the name of one of the moons of Mars. Ph is the sound of F in Greek and there is no letter F. I didn’t know that until a few moments ago. Onward.

As a writer what do I fear? What makes me wake up in a cold sweat, shivering? Here’s my list – writer specific:

  • Not getting published.
  • Getting published (I know, I know. But sometimes when you get what you ask for its scary. Hey, I’m a neurotic New York Writer. What can I say.).
  • Having writer’s block.
  • Not having writer’s block. (because I’m thinking… when will I get writer’s block?).
  • Getting a bad review (I’ve gotten rid of my Goodreads bookmark from my toolbar. I had worn it out from obsessively checking it. It’s like crack for writers.).
  • Red pen marks (this is a hold-over from high school).
  • Having to do social marketing (I’m getting over it but only slowly. I’m still not friendly with Twitter but at least we’re acquaintances. And I’m starting to know Facebook on a first name basis.).
  • Letting go of the need for publication (if I let it go will it be more likely to occur just like the old tale that says if you want something let it go?).
  • Not letting go of the need for publication (if I let it go will it not occur in which case this is a catch 22 and I’m screwed.).
  • Losing my electronic manuscript and not having backed it up.
  • Sending out emails that get lost in the electronic maelstrom of computer generated life and not knowing that they never reached their destination.
  • Having to look for an agent again (don’t have to, it’s just a fear…)

What’s on your list?