7. Cape Town
Thursday, May 2, 2013
M I C H I G A N
a novel by
Jeff Vande Zande
Beyond the cyclone fencing and down the slope rippling with big bluestem and switchgrass, I-696 drones with five o’clock traffic escaping Detroit. The sky is overcast and threatens rain. Robby Cooper stands outside an apartment door and studies the drivers racing westward on the interstate down the hill. Looking at the marbled cloud cover stretched gray to the horizon, he scratches feverishly at his upper arm. A raggedy-looking robin lands on top of the fence and just as quickly flies away. He follows it until it’s out of sight and then reads the address on the piece of paper trembling in his hand. He checks that the number matches the number on the apartment door. He checks it again. Fingercombing his bangs away from his face, he tucks the longer strands behind his ear. He inhales a long breath through his nose and looks up into the underside of the second floor walkway. Exhaling a sigh between his teeth, he watches his fist reach out to knock on the door.
He dries his palms against his jeans. A young, blonde woman opens the door. Her face blanches when she sees him.
Robby looks down and his bangs fall across his face. He sweeps them aside again. His smile is tight-lipped. “Hi, Tif,” he whispers, glancing at her rounded belly.
She watches him for a moment as though he is an apparition that might disappear, that hopefully will. She wears a long, blue maternity dress. Her hair is pulled back from her pretty face in a ponytail. One hand on the doorknob, her other hand moves to her abdomen and rubs gentle circles there. “You shouldn’t have come here,” she says. “You should have called.” Her hand leaves her belly and goes to the door, moving as though to close it. “Who gave you the address?”
“Your mom.” He shrugs. “She said it was good that I come see you face to face.”
Tiffany sniffs a scornful little laugh and shakes her head. “She was wrong.”
Robby jams his hands into his pockets and hunches his shoulders towards his ears. “I just wanted to talk.”
“I really don’t think we have anything to talk about,” she says. She crosses her arms between her belly and breasts. “I don’t expect anything from you if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried...” He shrugs again. “I just thought that we could talk.”
Rain starts to fall, dinging on the hoods of the cars behind him.
Tiffany hugs her arms tighter against her. “Is this something you have to do for your program? Are you supposed to talk to people that you might have—”
Robby shakes his head. “No, I’m not—”
“Because I’m not hurt. I’m not mad at you, not anymore. That night was a mistake, and it’s over.” Her hand goes to her belly and rubs. “I really don’t expect anything from you or want anything. You’ve got your own problems. This one’s mine, and it’s not even a problem, okay? I’m fine.”
As though being turned up on a volume knob, the rain drums down in a sudden torrent.
Robby looks over his shoulder at all the water pouring over the cars and asphalt. “We can’t even just talk, just for a minute?” he says, raising his voice above the racket of the rain.
She studies his face for a moment. “You’re tan.”
“The place was in Florida, wasn’t it?”
“It was a cold winter here.” She shakes her head. “Almost seems like you were being rewarded.”
He shivers. “Can we, though? Can we talk?”
“Aren’t we talking now?”
She combs her fingers into her hair, squeezing her palms against the side of her head. “What, then? What do you want to say?”
He looks back at the rain coming in at an angle, soaking his hoodie. He looks at her and his bangs sweep across his face again. He shrugs a shoulder. “Can I come in?”
The rain pours down.
Tiffany sighs and then steps back, opening the door wider. “I don’t have much time. I need to get ready for work soon. I’m covering for someone this afternoon.” When he doesn’t move, she motions with her hand, gesturing him inside with her fingers in a movement that might be used to swat away an insect. “Come on. Just don’t plan to stay for very long.”
Sheepishly, he slips in past her, and she closes the door behind him.
The apartment’s kitchen, living room, and dining area are all in the same space. The chair, coffee table, and sofa look worn and ready for replacement. There’s no dining room table. Tiffany walks past Robby and sits in the chair. Her hands go to her belly and rub circles, as though trying to predict a future from a crystal ball.
“I just moved in last month,” she says. “I’m just starting to put the place together.” She smooths her hand over the arm of the chair.
“It’s nice,” Robby says.
“No it isn’t, but it’s mine.”
He nods, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. “Are you still at the dealership?”
She looks at him. “You can sit down.”
Robby smiles. “Okay. Thanks.” He unzips his hoodie, takes it off, and holds it in his hand. He bends toward his laces.
“You don’t have to take off your shoes. You’re not going to hurt this carpet.”
He walks over to the couch and sits. He drapes the wet hoodie across his legs. “Are you still at Shuette’s?” he asks, watching her circling hands.
She nods. “Still at the reception desk, but not for much longer. Dan said that he’ll start training me for a title clerk position after the baby is born.”
Robby flips his bangs away with a snap of his head. “That a good deal?”
“Better than what I have. It’s high stress, but a lot better pay.”
He looks up at the sound of footsteps coming from the upstairs apartment.
“What about you?” Tiffany says. “Are you working?”
He shakes his head, rubbing his hand up and down his arm. “I just got back yesterday.” He shrugs. “I’m going to talk to Ty, but not about working. I don’t think he’d give me my job back.”
“I wouldn’t think so.”
He looks at the floor. “I need to talk to him, too.”
They don’t say anything for a moment. The muffled sound of the rain fills the room.
Tiffany pushes her hands against the arms of the chair and raises the leg rest on the recliner. Her hands go back to her belly.
Robby watches them. “Does it kick?”
She glances at him and then back to her hands. “Not exactly. He moves, though. I can feel him moving.”
His face changes. “Him? It’s a boy?”
“What did you want to talk about, Robby?”
A small sound vibrates from his pants pocket. He takes out his cell phone and looks at the screen. It reads Mom. He presses a button, sending it to voicemail. He looks at Tiffany and stuffs the phone back into his pocket. “I don’t know, Tif… everything, I guess.”
“Is there an everything?”
He scoots forward on the cushion, rubbing his palms over his knees. “I think so. Don’t you think so?”
She looks into his eyes. Her head shakes back and forth. “No. I don’t.”
“It’s mine, though, right? I’d heard, and then your mom said—”
Tiffany pulls up on the lever and slams the leg rest back into the recliner. “Yes, it’s yours. It’s yours because you showed up to party high and started telling me how much you loved me. You found me down in the basement drunk, and you lied to me, and then you fucked me.” Tears well in her eyes and she brushes them away. “I didn’t hear anything from you after, and when I finally heard something, I heard that you were gone and in rehab.” She takes a deep breath and exhales it slowly.
Robby’s fingers pick at a loose thread on the couch. “You weren’t that drunk,” he mutters.
“I didn’t lie.” He looks across at her and into her eyes. “I’ve had feelings for you since high school. I always—”
She crosses her arms. “Shut up, Robby. Just shut up, okay? I don’t want to hear about any of this. I wish you wouldn’t have even come here. Why’d you come here?”
He looks toward the window at the rain coming down the glass in wormy lines. He squeezes his forearm in his fingers. “You talk about things when you’re in, things you want to make right. That’s what they get you to talk about. My mom told me about you.” He looks at her. “I would have called, you know. I was only allowed to talk to one person, though. That was part of the deal. I got to talk to my mom once every two weeks. That’s it.”
Tiffany looks at him, almost through him.
“For the last three months, you’re who I talked about. In group, in one-on-one. I talked about you… you and the baby. I just want to do something right. I want to play some kind of part—”
He looks at her, his face startled.
She shakes her head. “We’re not part of your recovery. We’re not going to be the thing that makes you feel better about yourself, okay? You’re just going to have to—”
“I don’t mean it that way,” he says, holding his head between his hands. “It’s not about my recovery or… I just want to help. I want to be involved in some way.”
“That’s fine, but I’m saying no. I don’t need any help from my mom, and I don’t need any help from you... especially not you.”
Robby closes his eyes and squeezes his forehead in his hand. “Why? I don’t understand. I just want to do something…” A tear breaks from his eye and he smears it across his cheeks. “I mean, he’s my son, too. Like it or not—”
“I want you to leave.”
He looks at her. “Tif—”
Using the arms of the chair, she pushes herself to standing. “I know what you’re thinking. A boy should have his father in his life.” She looks toward the window. “That’s probably true most of the time. But you’re an addict and a liar and a thief. I don’t want that in my life.” She looks at him. “I just want you to stay the hell away from me, okay?” She glowers at him with stony eyes. “I should have never let you come in here.”
He drops his face into his hands. His body shakes, and he releases a choked sob. Then, he stops himself, breathing in a strained breath through his teeth and exhaling its heat into his palms. “Jesus Christ, Tif,” he nearly whispers. “You won’t let me be any part of this? You’re really saying that you won’t let—”
“Robby, just go,” she says. “That’s what I’m saying. Just go.” She walks to the door and opens it. The sound of the rain is like colossal radio static.
He looks out at the cold, wet world waiting for him. Standing, he puts on his hoodie, zips it up, and slouches past her.
Outside her apartment, he turns back. “Could you call me, at least? Or, call my mom? Would you at least do that?”
“Call you? What are you—”
“When he’s born.” His voice cracks. “Could you just call me when he’s born?”
She looks down at the ground. Her hand rubs her belly. “I don’t know,” she says, pushing the door toward him. Her hand stops rubbing. “I don’t think so,” she says and closes the door.
He stands on the welcome mat with tears streaming down his face. “You weren’t that drunk!” he shouts above the noise of the rain. He turns, flips up his hood, and runs through the downpour to his car.
Sitting in the driver’s seat with the engine running, he turns on the radio. Bruce Springsteen sings something about time slipping away and leaving you with nothing. Robby turns the radio off.
He fishes the cell phone out of his pocket and listens to his voicemail:
“Robby, it’s Mom. Your Grandpa Otto wants you to stop out to his place when you get a chance. He just called. I tried to give him your number, but he said that he wants to see you in person. Soon as you can, okay? Don’t keep him waiting too long. Call me, too. I want to know how things went with Tiffany. Okay? Okay. Well, bye. I’ll talk to you soon. I love you, and I’m so proud of you. You’re doing great. Everything just keeps getting better from here, okay? You just need to—”
He tosses the phone onto the passenger seat. It bounces once and lands down in the passenger seat footwell. His mother’s voice keeps talking faintly.
Robby gives it the middle finger.
Shivering, he turns on the heater. The vents blow cold air over him.
Outside, the world undulates through the rain-wrecked windshield. Blurred brakes light glow red in front of him, then white shifting into reverse. Reaching to shift into drive, he slumps forward and buries his face in his arms against the steering wheel.
Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Vande Zande
All Rights Reserved
Cannot be reproduced or republished in any form whatsoever without express permission of the author
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
A Life of Inspiration
Interview with author Robert Bové
By Evan Czmola
"A morning prayer before the cats start complaining. They cry for food each morning. Robert Bové is always willing to get up, but the miscommunication between the motivated mind and the exhausted body always creates a struggle."
To Read the Full Piece, click HERE
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Poems by Milorad Pejić
Hyperborea (Aula, Prague, 2011) / Hyperborea (Fondacija Mak Dizdar, Sarajevo, 2013)
Translated from the Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/
by Omer Hadžiselimović
The sun descends into Geiranger every day likeinto a well. Like a needle onto a gramophone record,
the beak of a gull slides down onto the water, green
The same age-old idyll. Only the houses under the sky
are empty, not a wisp of smoke. The people in them
Geiranger has used up, but it still watches over the
houses and cultivates them like mushrooms. Nailed
on the precipices they suffer from gravitation like
from a headache.
Tour buses crawl up the serpentines like ants at dusk.
There’s no panic in the harbor either: unhurriedly,
the campers with their doggies go out for a walk,
the fishermen shower their boats. No one suspects
that the sun, like a dropped sequin, is sinking for the
last time into the dark-blue depths of Geiranger,
forever and irrevocably.
* A fjord in Norway
I don’t ask questions, but answers come to mefrom your students, Albert! Albert, I know less and less!
What are they seeking in the dark? Light?
With every new discovery I am a step closer to
the already seen. The mathemathics of the future takes me
back to your childhood, to a sunny fair on Schrannenplatz.
Sibylle the Gypsy had stolen you for a moment, that
famous-fortune teller who reads palms as if she were
Sibylle the witch enticed you for nothing, just for play,
to amuse the brutes. But when you reached out your hand to her
and when she brushed the dust off, she fell silent. She gripped
the counter with the skins on it. Everything stopped, everything
turned to ice, as in the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Only, from a different
fairy tale, the dripping of chestnuts here and there on the green could be
heard. She was looking for the light in the gloom but, like a
merry-go-round, there was a black hole spinning in your tiny palm.
Something not yet seen! And Schrannen Square was tumbling
into it as into a concrete mixer.
Simple is the mathematics of life and death:it is enough for place and time to coincide.
Odd Knutsen, a physical laborer at the Stavanger
canned-fish factory had planned his vacation
at a warm sea. On his way home from third shift,
he would check the status of his credit cards, and
around noon, before going to bed, he would sniff
his sunscreen lotion.
At last the day arrived and snow-white clouds
stuck on the peaks of the Alps reminded him of
cotton candy amid little children’s hats at spring
fairs in Boknafjorden. A wonderful sight, an
unplanned opportunity for a break will be rejected
for the sake of travel discipline.
What we learn we learn too late. That black
point, that magnet in which place and time overlap,
you can’t fool. The mustached driver of the
Greek rig had decided for the sake of travel
discipline to forgo his habitual steak
at the little restaurant with plastic ivy
near the small town of Airolo. Those clouds
reminded him of the toxic fumes around exhaust valves
in the industrial zone of Milan when a white
Volvo, blinded by the setting sun at the
St. Gotthard Tunnel exit, crashed under his feet.
When leaving its own it vanished into universal darkness.
All my life, when awake, I’ve sought a small plateaufrom a dream of long ago, a place for a house by a thin
cataract, white like a ribbon from a half-opened book.
I saw such a clearing when traveling once over the
“Sju søstre” waterfall, but I couldn’t recognize it, blinded
by the sequin of the sun in the dark-blue and dark-green
depths of Geiranger.
From time to time I open my bird-cage of wishes, but
my birds do not fly out any more. I’m too old to begin
and to dream ahead. I don’t see well any more. I cut
my nails from memory and voices, too, come to me
colorless, as if from the loudspeaker at railroad stations:
the clamor of children on the precipice above the “Seven
Sisters” waterfall. When we played in the yard, they
used to tie us around our waists with a clothesline so we
could withstand the magnets of the abyss. So we could
keep together. Today we are scattered out across countries
like crabs across fjords.
Copyright©2013 by Milorad Pejić
Milorad Pejić was born in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1960. Since 1992 he has lived in Sweden. His published books of poems include:
The Vase for the Lily Plant (Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1985)
The Eyes of Keyholes (Bosanska riječ, Tuzla-Wupertal, 2001 and 2012)
Hyperborea (Aula, Prague, 2011)
Hyperborea (Fondacija Mak Dizdar, Sarajevo, 2013)
Thursday, April 11, 2013
What follows is from an interview with Arthur Powers:
In one sense, I have been interested in writing ever since I was in junior high school and became intensely interested in reading. There was a “classics” section in our school library, and I gobbled the books up one after another: Dumas, Jules Verne, Sir Walter Scott. I did some writing then, and in high school took a creative writing class.
But in another sense, I did not see myself primarily as a “writer.” I loved (and still love) history – I wanted (and still want) to be an active participant in society – in the history of our times. I believe that living life – being involved – comes first. If someone asks me, I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, a Catholic, a lawyer, vice-president of a public safety communications company, member of the pastoral council, former lay missioner in Brazil, a poet & writer.
As a young person – as with most young people – I wanted to express myself. As I matured (I’m sixty five), I became much more interested in other people. My grandfather told me that one can never be bored if there are people to watch. I find people fascinating – I love to observe them, to hear their stories, to listen to the way they say things, to enter their world.
I also love words. I grew up in a family that loved words. My father was a wonderful punster, and my mother was always finding and introducing to us new vocabulary. My early writing is poetry – I started publishing poetry in the late 1960s, and by the 1990s (when I began publishing fiction) my word skills were well honed. I had the privilege of not having to earn my living through writing, so that I could focus on writing things I really wanted to write, and could take the time to craft my work. Some of my writing is better than others, but – on the whole – I am very satisfied with the craftsmanship of the work I have published.
I always have more ideas than I have time to write. Ideas come in many ways. I’ve woken in the morning with a complete story in my head (for example, the short stories “Thorn” and “Sonata on a Michigan Night”). Others grow out of a single line, or – more commonly – seeing a person in a particular situation (“The Moving” and “Switzerland”). They can be developed from a story someone tells me (“The Healer”), or from an experiences I’ve witnessed (“A Hero for the People” and “Two Foxes”), or from an almost geometrical idea (“Commedia Dell’Arte” and “Four Litres of Honey”).
In terms of what makes a good story, characters are the most important element in fiction, and next in importance is atmosphere. How characters confront situations and one another in that atmosphere is the essence of the story. (I know this because I read and write stories.) I want my readers to be drawn into the world of my characters – to understand, even empathize with, the characters’ situation and world view. Much like a “method” actor, I essentially become my characters as I write about them. I see them – but also see the world through their eyes.
I firmly believe that good writing is inspired – inspirited – by something greater than the writer. Often a reader will point out some meaning or nuance in my story that I never thought of, and I will immediately recognize that the comment is valid. Of course, at times I am completely bemused by a reader's interpretation of a story and his misunderstanding of what I had in mind. But that happens to all artists.
Most of what I write is either realistic or what is called in the United States “magical realism.” I spent most my adult life in Latin America, so I tend not to distinguish between the two. Latin Americans do not draw a line between the “natural” and the “supernatural” in the same way that North Americans do. Natural and supernatural are two interrelated aspects of life. A faith healing (“The Healer”) or an angel (“Padre Raimundo’s Army”) is as real as a stone or a chair.
Everything in life is an act of self-discovery. More importantly, there is a discovery of ourselves in relation to others and with God. Writing and reading are part of life. Of course we grow through them. Good writing makes us grow in good ways (which doesn’t mean that it only deals with good things happening to good people). I heard recently that there are studies showing that fiction readers tend to be more empathetic than other people – I haven’t seen the studies, but it doesn’t surprise me. Reading fiction is a way of getting into the experiences of people whose world is different from our own.
Stories are like children. You love them all. All of those that have reached publication I feel to be well crafted. Some are light (“Grace & The Chickens”), some more profound. It is interesting to see how different stories touch different readers. A story I am very fond is the title story in “A Hero for the People.” Yet only one very discerning reader – Debra Murphy – has remarked to me on the story’s underlying architecture, social message, and gentle humor – noting that it is her favorite in the collection. Most people focus on other stories in the collection – which is fine. They are all good stories.
Concerning my work schedule, I have a demanding job, a family, and an active life. I write when I can. Usually I will conceive a story in my head, ponder it, work out details – then write it down when it is ready. I’ll put it away and pull it out a few weeks (or months) later, make some revisions, and send it out. I try never to talk about the stories before I write them – I find that, if I talk, the stories are diffused and lose their immediacy.
I don’t think much about genres. Generally I suppose, for that reason, my stories would be labeled “literary.” I’ve written some science fiction, some fables, and have a pretty good mystery in the works. I enjoy reading mysteries but, except for the very best writers (Marjorie Allingham, Ellis Peters), most writers end up twisting their characters and situations to fit the mystery plot and, in the end, that is not very satisfying.
In addition to my professional work and own writing, I’m also the “contemporary” editor for CatholicFiction.net – a site that reviews books of interest to Catholics (which is a broad category). So I read quite a lot of contemporary (roughly anything written since 2000) Catholic fiction. I also mentor a number of other writers, and read their work. In my spare time, I read history, biographies, some philosophy, some classics, short stories, poetry, and a few of the better mystery writers. A great number of writers have influenced me over the years. Notable among them are Willa Cather, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.
Until recently, I have not belonged to writing groups. This was partly due to circumstances – I was living in Brazil (much of the time in remote locations), so there were no writing groups. But it is also due to my nature. I’m a very social person, but I find that writing is, for me, an individual endeavor, not a social one. I find that talking about what I write (before it is written) draws away from the actual writing. That being said, I truly believe writers can reach out and help each other through encouragement. I am a founding member of the Catholic Writers Guild: I regularly lead workshops and I mentor a number of writers.
Some have asked how technology (since most people over the age of forty have lived through dramatic changes) has affected my work habits. I used to carry around notebooks and writing pads, and write everywhere. I now find that I need a laptop to write. It has made it easier not only to write, but to revise. Currently I am working on a number of short stories. I am also seeking to publish my novel, Shadow Companion, set in Brazil during the military dictatorship. Portions of the novel have appeared in the journal Dappled Things. It is very good, but it crosses genre bounders (literary, political thriller), which makes it hard for publishers to classify.
Copyright 2013 by Arthur Powers - All Rights Reserved
Sunday, March 17, 2013
I don’t know when I realized that I wanted to be a writer, but I was surrounded by writing from a young age. My father, John Vande Zande, was a writer. He wrote Night Driving (William Morrow), a collection of short stories, which won a Chautauqua Literary Circle Award. I distinctly remember Saturday mornings because we three children had to be quiet so Dad could write. Such mornings were sound-tracked by the clacking of typewriter keys. When I was young, I thought that all fathers wrote stories on Saturday mornings. It was only later that I would discover that my father had a strange affliction . . . an affliction that he would pass on to me.
When I was six, I wrote my first story, which my parents tape-recorded as I read it aloud. It was called “The Strange Bug.” I can still remember the opening lines: “First I was run over by a car. Then I was run over by a train. And I was hurt. And I had to go to the hospital.” Since that first story, I’ve been an on-again off-again writer. In my teens, I didn’t write . . . sort of a rebellion against my father. In my twenties, I wrote poetry; I suppose because my father wrote fiction. For most of my thirties up until now, I’ve concentrated on stories, novels, and screenplays for short films.
I’m at a place where I am quite content with my writing at the craft level. I know when I’m working on a good poem or good story. What I struggle with at 42 years of age is the fear that I’m repeating myself . . . of not doing anything new. My most recent novel, American Poet, had a great deal to do with Theodore Roethke. Through research, I learned that Roethke reinvented himself as a poet with almost every book. It makes me wonder if I’m doing that. I worry that I’m spinning out the same themes over and over without really saying anything new.
I’ve definitely explored some specific themes in my work. I’m interested in working-class themes and how work both gives us identity and confines us. I’m also interested in themes of altruism. I’ve been told that fathers and sons is an ongoing theme in my work. Likewise, I’m interested in characters who are trying to discover their true selves. Recently, I’ve been exploring old age and retirement as a theme. That stage of our lives is the last frontier, and I think it’s been fairly unexplored in literature. It’s relevant, I think, because we are living longer, so some of us have to face the unknown of twenty years after retirement. In a way, it’s like a second go-around with our teenage years. We are faced once again with the challenging question, “Who am I?” We usually don’t have work to define us anymore. There are no maps for how to approach those years after retirement. In fact, I explored it in a novella entitled The Slow Moons Climbs. So far, no publishers have been interested in it.
Of my themes, I think I am most interested in the idea of self-identity. It’s the greatest challenge we are given in life . . . to discover our true self and to give ourselves the freedom for our self to evolve. Norm Maclean of A River Runs Through It fame once wrote, “The problem of self identity is not just a problem for the young. It is a problem all the time. Perhaps the problem. It should haunt old age, and when it no longer does it should tell you that you are dead.” That’s the theme that fuels The Slow Moon Climbs, but it is also the theme of my first novel, Into the Desperate Country. In that novel, my main character loses his wife and daughter to a tragic car accident. Years later, he realizes that he doesn’t know who he is. I have a colleague who used to teach Into the Desperate Country in a literature course. Whenever he would invite me in as a guest author, I would have excellent discussions with his students. The theme of self-identity is very relevant to them; most of them are struggling with it every day.
Recently, I’ve struggled with my own self-identity, especially as it relates to being a writer. I’ve entered a time in my life where finding time to write has become much more difficult. When my children were younger and not in school, I was a night writer. I wrote every night from 11 p.m. until one in the morning. I easily functioned on six hours of sleep. As my children and I have aged, it’s harder for me to work at night. When I was working on American Poet in the fall of 2011, I was writing until one or two in the morning and then getting up at 5:45 a.m. to get my kids ready for school. I had a cot in my office at Delta College to take naps on between classes. That schedule made it so I could finish the book but, when I look back, I realize that I was sleep deprived for at least three months. I also wasn’t very healthy.
Since then, I’ve been getting sleep . . . and I like it. I’ve been going to the gym regularly, too. I might even be in the best shape of my life. I haven’t really started any longer projects like a novel since finishing American Poet. When I’m working on something, I need to work on it every day for a sustained amount of time. Right now, my daily life offers no sustained amount of downtime. I’m in a process of trying to discover what kind of writer I’m going to be if I’m no longer a night writer. I’m trying to wrap my mind around the idea that, for novels at least, I’m probably going to have to become a summer writer. I’ll still write at night in the summer, but at least I’ll be able to sleep in. It’s difficult because I have an idea for a new novel but, short of thinking about it, I can’t really start writing it.
A recent development in my life is a writing gig I have with the Cedar Sweeper, a magazine devoted to fly fishing in Michigan. Once every two months I write a short story for them, and the only stipulation is that the story has to be related to fly fishing in some way. Also, the story can’t be longer than 2,000 words. I’ve really enjoyed coming up with ideas for fly fishing-related stories, and the practice keeps me immersed in the world of short fiction.
The last long project that I finished was a novella. I never allowed myself to work beyond midnight on it. That might be why it ended up being around 80 pages long. For me, however, this novella, entitled Parable of Weeds, is definitely new territory compared to the realism of most of my work. I guess it would be called a slipstream novella because it slips between sci-fi and literature. If I had to compare it to something, I would compare it to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I’ve done a little slipstream writing in short fiction, and I love the world-creating that it requires. Parable of Weeds was my attempt to execute a longer slipstream piece. I really wanted it to be a novel, but it more or less finished itself on page 80. Even though it was new territory, I must have done something right because it was recently accepted for publication by Untreed Reads, an e-book publisher out of California. That will be new territory for me as well . . . having a book that is strictly an e-book.
I sometimes wonder if I would still be writing if I weren’t teaching creative writing. It’s a mixed blessing of sorts. It fuels me and keeps me interested in writing, but it also drains me and makes me sick of writing. I hear a frequent question from my students: “Once this class is over, what should I do to keep improving as a writer?” I think they expect me to tell them about another class; however, I usually have pretty simple advice for them: “Read everything you can, especially in the genres that you want to write in.” Once writers know how to read like a writer (which I try to teach my students) then, technically, they don’t need any more classes. They can learn everything they need to learn by reading other writers. If students ask me who they should read, I often tell them to start with Hemingway. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s really good advice. I follow up by emphasizing that they shouldn’t stop with Hemingway. All writers have something to teach us about writing.
Interestingly, I think as a writer I have reached a point that I no longer read writers to study their craft. After twenty years of writing, I know how to write; I don’t need to study other writers anymore. Or maybe I’m simply too stubborn to learn anything from them. I don’t read a great deal of contemporary fiction, especially not the stuff that’s being called “cutting edge.” It bores me, but I’m not going to get into why. When I begin to explore the reasons behind my boredom, I come out looking like a closed-minded curmudgeon. Right now I am reading Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, a nearly 800-page non-fiction book on the Vietnam War. I’d been teaching Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” for years, but I realized recently that I know next to nothing about the Vietnam War. I felt I should know something since my students were asking me questions that I couldn’t answer.
I think that I’ve also outgrown my need for contact with fellow writers. I used to have some writer friends with whom I would exchange work. Early on, it was very helpful, and I would even recommend similar exchanges for anyone who is just getting started writing. Eventually, though, I got to the point where I didn’t need other people. I often found that they weren’t making my writing better; they were just making it closer to how they would have written it. To be honest, I don’t care that much for spending time with writers . . . at least not writers who can only talk about writing. Jesus, but that gets tiring. On the whole, writers are a pretty solipsistic bunch. I would much rather spend time with their writing than with them, at least most of them. I can go many months without ever talking about writing. In fact, I’m happiest that way. For whatever reason, however, when I’m around other writers, we always end up talking about writing. There’s always a sub-textual pissing match going on beneath the surface of the conversation, too. Too often, writers seem to be one-upping each other with what they talk about. Or maybe I’m just sensitive.
That’s not to say, however, that I don’t like people. In fact, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy working collaboratively with other people on creative projects. About five years ago, I took a few classes to learn more about screenwriting . . . mainly because we had students at Delta College interested in screenwriting, and I wanted to be able to offer them a class. As a result, I now find myself teaching in a film program at Delta. I work with another professor from the Electronic Media discipline. We both feel that if we are going to teach students how to write and make short films, then we should also be writing and making them. Our most recent project will be a twenty-minute film when it’s finished. I have to say that I really love working with other people on a creative project, perhaps more than I love writing. Writing fiction or poetry can be such a lonely business. I suppose that’s why some writers like to get together with other writers. That’s the difference, though. When writers get together, it’s usually to talk about writing or something they’ve written. The creative aspect always takes place in isolation. When film makers get together, it’s to get something done. It’s not to critique; it’s to create together. Film making has allowed me to branch out in other ways, too. I’ve even taken a stab or two at acting.
I’ve been asked if I consider myself a writer. My answer: I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m most happy when I’m involved in creating something. For me, that doesn’t have to necessarily be a written piece. I’ve dabbled in acting. I’ve committed myself to working on screenplays. When I’m doing either, I feel that same creative high that I feel when I’m writing fiction or poetry. I’ve also done some painting and even tried my hand at making furniture. While doing either, I feel just as inspired and fulfilled as I do when I’m writing.
I like to create, and it really doesn’t matter what I’m creating. What this means is that I’ll probably never be a great writer. The great ones always seem to be obsessive about writing, which I’m not. If Theodore Roethke is any indication, that obsession also makes them rather intolerable people, which I hope never to be. So, maybe I’m not a writer, especially if obsession is part of the definition. Honestly, I’m okay with that. I’ve discovered that I need creative projects in my life, and that’s enough to sustain me. It’s a big part of my self-identity.
I can live with that. In fact, I can live by it.
Copyright 2013 by Jeff Vande Zande