Monday, December 8, 2014

Chickens, Chickens, More Chickens and Maybe Some Writing

The heart of any good writer is a love and attention to details. The best writers, while maybe not seeing everything, see what is important. The world for a writer is fanciful, even for Hemingway.

I recently got three chickens. Not all at once. A few weeks ago I got a baby white chicken and a baby brown chicken. They were so adorable and sweet. And then they got older and started being super feisty and hungry. So hungry. Their favorite meal is macaroni and cheese and pears. They go crazy when I give it to them. A week ago I got another baby chicken. A beautiful black one. Our family was complete. I the new chick, Emily, in the cage with Lily and Violet. Suddenly everything was very still and quiet for several moments. And then Lily, my once gentle baby, rushed forward and started pecking the heck out of Emily. Emily started yelping. I reached in the cage and saved her. I gave Lily and Violet and strong talk and let them know I was very unhappy. I put Emily back in the cage and, for a bit, all was well. But then Emily started eating and Violet rushed forth and started pecking the food out of her mouth.

I yelled, "That's it. If you are old enough to be a meany then you are old enough to be out of the cage." I opened the door and they rushed out wildly. I put Emily in and locked the cage. But then Violet and Emily started pecking at the metal bars. They wanted back in.

"To bad," I said. "You have a big yard to explore. It's all yours." They cocked their heads. I shooed them into the yard. They yelped and hid behind a small bush. I left them alone for awhile, came back out and saw they were still hiding behind the bush. The world was too big for them. Too much too soon. I called them and they came back to the cage where I laid out their dish and water. Ever since that day, they hang out mostly by the cage or go back to the bush to hide.

What does any of this have to do with writing? I'm in love with my chickens and their little drama has inspired several ideas for children's stories and one short story. Inspiration is everywhere and the wonderful details of animal life can foster the most amazing stories.

Pay attention to your pets and if you don't have one, maybe you should get one. The least they can do is keep you company as you write.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Wagner and Writing

I've been on an opera kick. Primarily German opera. I went through the same fascination in undergrad but didn't have the privilege of Wikipedia or the criticism of George Bernard Shaw on my Kindle. I've been listening to German opera in general on Pandora and recently bought The Ring Cycle on iTunes. My intent is to understand Wagner and not be intimidated by him.

Things that I've learned so far:

  • Keep the melody simple: You may think that opera is complicated or the writing is complicated. Both can be complicated. But the best writing creates a familiar melody that anyone can follow. Don't be afraid of being familiar. Don't be afraid of being melodic. That's what people remember and that's what people allude to when they speak of greatness. 
  • Be dramatic: Opera is always dramatic and the writing of prose or the libretto follows suit. Something always has to happen. If you are writing long paragraphs where nothing happens you might want to rethink your approach. In drama, things happen. Don't be afraid of action. Action is what makes writing exciting. 
  • Draw from many sources: Wagner drew from national myths and literature. Why can't you? Drawing from well known myths makes your writing seem deep and prescient. Learn from your country's past. Write about your country's past. Literature is history even though it may innovate in form.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What I Learned from Foyle's War on How to Write Mysteries

I took a break from my mystery novel, Lilliput, to work on my holiday short, Holiday Horror: Attack of the Zombies. I have been watching Foyle's War, which is a BBC show. It is a mystery series that takes place during WWII in rural England. I blasted through the first few seasons. The writing is impeccable and it makes me itch to go back to my mystery novel. Here's what I learned from the show about how to write mysteries:

  • Don't rely on science: A lot of mysteries, especially the one's on American TV, are over the top and rely too heavily on science. Don't get me wrong, I'm the biggest science buff around. But tests like DNA and such take time. Most tests don't get results in an hour like they do on TV. So if a typical test takes days, does a detective sit back and wait? No way. A detective detects and lots of information can be gleaned just from the initial interviews. If you are writing a mystery make your detective or chief sleuth proactive and make sure that a significant portion of the detecting happens from interviews. Interviews are exciting in a book but processing test results not so much. 
  • Keep it low key: There is no need for constant explosions, murders or clashing personalities. Be creative in how you work in drama. British are always low key. Some American audiences might find it boring. However, low key can work well in writing. Amazing character and plot building can happen while your characters are having tea. 
  • Keep the characters sane: There is a trend in international mysteries to make the chief protagonist or sleuth screwed up. You know what I'm talking about. They are suffering from depression, PTSD, are boozers, have awful relationships etc. There are ways to develop character without giving your character serious personality flaws. In Lilliput, I am balancing it. My female detective has issues but the male detective is a bit healthier. As in life, writing is about balance and interesting people don't have to be crazy. In Foyle's War, Detective Foyle is mild mannered, congenial, a gentleman and kind. He has some pain. His wife died and his son is a fighter pilot. I found that this turmoil is enough to make Detective Foyle interesting. 
  • Include subplots: I'm writing Lilliput in first person narrative. However, there are parts to the novel that are in other characters. I find this keeps the writing fresh and creates subplots the add to the overall plot. Subplots make your novel more complex and keeps it interesting for the reader. In Foyle's War each character is following their own storyline and the different threads lend to the plot and the various themes. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On Monsters and No Monsters

  • I got my last vacation day of the year on Halloween so we headed to Greer, AZ in the White Mountains. I wore kitty ears for the 4 hour drive from Phoenix. I got waves from passing cars and when we stopped for lunch an older man said I looked cute. Ah, I love Halloween. We got into Greer around 4PM. We immediately started roaming the woods. You could hear the wind through the pine trees and shadows were forming all around the trees in the forest. It was perfectly spooky and perfect for Halloween. We headed to Molly Butler's which is the only bar in town and the best restaurant. We had steak, shrimp cocktail and several shots of different flavored vodkas. An old guy was dominating the jukebox so lots of 50s tunes were being played. This was frustrating because I really wanted to play Werewolves of London and Thriller, the ultimate Halloween songs. 
  • November 1 we went on a long hike through the woods looking for fairies and naming squirrels and rabbits that crosses our paths. My favorite was Dover the Squirrel who demonstrated his climbing skills and Clover the Rabbit who hopped higher than any rabbit I have ever seen.
  • When we got back to the cabin I watched a movie called Hannah Arendt. I was excited. She is one of my philosophy heroes. The movie focused on the Adolf Eichmann trial and her revolutionary conclusion that he was not a monster merely a bureaucrat. I hadn't realized she became a pariah after her publication in the New Yorker. When I first read her articles in undergrad I had fallen for the same trap as most people. The Nazis were evil, radical and monsters. Halloween is a good time to contemplate monsters. Arendt held that monsters were unthinking. Not brilliant like Hannibal Lecter. Monsters were boring. It's a different way of looking at evil. Not as exciting but probably closer to the truth. I spent the rest of the day reading Eichmann in Jerusalem and acknowledging just how brilliant Hannah Arendt was. 
  • I will be reading the Outlander series next as well as A Gathering of Witches since I am incapable of reading one book at a time. 
  • I have a Thanksgiving deadline for my next book about zombie elves. Vacation is over. Time to get back to work. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Sons of Anarchy: Not Anarchists

“Every society has the criminals it deserves.” 
― Emma GoldmanRed Emma Speaks

I am now in my third season of Sons of Anarchy. I have been binge watching on Amazon Prime for the past few weeks. I'm new to biker gangs, or clubs, as they call themselves in the show. I'm not a motorcycle aficionado and have chosen not to pay much heed to bikers. My assessment has always been that they are law breakers, rough, druggies, boozers and a lot of other sins I try to keep my distance from. I aim for a drama free life and bikers seem knee deep in it. My assessment is stereotypical but that doesn't mean there's not some truth to it.

Sons of Anarchy busts some of my assumptions and reinforces others. But for being such outlaws and calling themselves anarchists, their social structure is surprisingly old fashioned, primal and not at all free. Apparently, the creator of Sons of Anarchy did research by hanging out with a biker gang. He never disclosed his source. Sons of Anarchy is entertainment, but I have to assume that several aspects of it is spot on.

When I think anarchists, I think of Emma Goldman and her fight to free the mind, cut open cultural boundaries and thoroughly question life and our place in this world, in this universe. Emma Goldman was part of a plot to murder an industrialist. She definitely had an outlaw streak. But she also spearheaded the feminist movement, advocated birth control, defended homosexuality and a host of other causes that are now ordinary features of our society. She was definitely a historical figure way ahead of her time.

In Sons of Anarchy the club are outlaws. They do bad things to bad people. You don't mind it while watching and you root for the club because the writing and character development are flawless. But the club isn't about being free. They are more bound and constricted than I and I stay carefully inside the law. The hierarchy and chauvinism of the club has the stink of the Middle Ages. They fancy themselves knights. The head of the club, Clay Morrow, calls his "old lady" his "queen". It sounds romantic. It's not. Instead of freeing themselves from social conventions they dig in deep and validate them. They aren't anarchists. They are as much about ideology as Bush, Cheney, Obama and the Taliban. Except one group has the sanction of the law and the other, the club [Samcro], lives outside it, which that as they ride around suckling the teat of their leader and calling their women, their old ladies, monikers that denote possession, they also put themselves at risk for gun fights and stiff prison sentences.

Sons of Anarchy makes for great entertainment, but they aren't anarchists. They should rename themselves, the Sons of Ideology. Of course, that doesn't sound as snazzy and people might mistake them for a splinter Republican group. That would not be entertaining.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Exceeding Tolerance: The Love of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger (Book Review)



Letters 1925-1975 – Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

Edited by Ursula Ludz, Translated from the German by Andrew Shields

Harcourt Inc: New York, 2004


Love, by its very nature, is unworldly, and it is for this reason rather than its rarity that it is not only apolitical but anti-political, perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces.


-Hannah Arendt


Is love unity or union? If it is unity, there is only tolerance bridging the gap between individuals. However, if love is a union between two people then tolerance becomes an inappropriate medium for accessing that love. The union between two individuals exceeds the feeling of tolerance and reaches the level of oneness. What I do to you I do to myself. In order to understand this position, we need to revisit the story of Echo and Narcissus. At its heart, this story is about self-love and the shunning of companionship. Narcissus, a handsome man, fell in love with his own image in the lake water. He was so moved by this image that he vocally exclaimed that he loved himself, or at least the image that his self-produced. Echo, witnessing this act of self-love and hearing Narcissus’ words, called out ‘I love you’. Echo, having been punished for her talkativeness to Hera as a result of her allowing her lover Zeus to escape, was condemned to merely repeating or echoing the words around her. Thus, Echo, who had great feelings for Narcissus, could only repeat his phrases. Narcissus ignored the words uttered by Echo and continued to stare at his image. He rejected food and water and died gazing at himself. A lovely flower grew in his place and Echo was refused the return of her voice and was condemned to sound throughout the land. Repeating and repeating.

There are many themes and ideas that can be gleaned from this story. But I would like to situate the story within the life and relationship of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, who maintained a fruitful and, at times, tense relationship for over fifty years. Their compiled letters are a universal testament between two influential twentieth century thinkers and a personal statement on the bond of love.

In a letter dated November, 21 1925 Heidegger asks Arendt the following question, “Why is love rich beyond all other possible human experiences and a sweet burden to those seized in its grasp?” The prolific Heidegger who was not one to let any question go unanswered responded that, “we become what we love and yet remain ourselves. Then we want to thank the beloved, but find nothing that suffices. We can only thank within ourselves. Love transforms gratitude into loyalty to ourselves and unconditional faith in the other.” (pg 4-5). A few days later, Heidegger writes to Arendt that, “the demonic struck me. The silent prayer of your beloved hands and your shining brow enveloped it in womanly transfiguration. Nothing like it has ever happened to me. In the rainstorm on the way home, you were even more beautiful and great. I would have liked to wander with you for nights on end.” (pg. 6).

 For the first quarter of the book, Heidegger is effusive and descriptive in his feelings for Arendt. Their affair began in 1925 and lasted briefly, although they would remain friends for decades. At the time, Heidegger was thirty-five (married with children and a professor at the University of Marburg) and Arendt was eighteen. The affair ended when Arendt followed Karl Jaspers to Heidelberg. There she would complete her dissertation on the concept of love in Saint Augustine, which laid the foundation for her seminal works on thinking, banality and the ennobling qualities of friendship.

The letters collected in this book clearly illustrate Arendt’s and Heidegger’s intellectual empathy for each other. The physical ramifications of their relationship are unknown but it is unnecessary to even hypothesize on this area of their lives as they were obviously connected to each other by a bond exceeding that of scholarship and philosophical ponderings. In many ways, their relationship was a perfect union. The story of Narcissus and their words elaborate this point.

Narcissus is generally considered a negative figure in Western culture. His love for his own image excluded the voice of others (like Echo) and is seen as possessing the basest kind of love, love for one’s self, rather than love for other’s which is generally viewed under Judeo-Christian ethics as the highest form of love. Arendt herself might agree with this assessment as her graduate dissertation was based on Christian love and professed throughout her career that thinking about one’s self could lead to inherent problems when one is positioned within a society. I am specifically referring to her commentary on Adolf Eichmann. However, Narcissus can also be viewed sympathetically. Essentially, he fell in love with lake water. He fell so profoundly in love that he excluded all external stimulation such as food, drink and even Echo, who had become infatuated with him. But this love, illusory as it was, became a grander kind of love. In a poem that Heidegger wrote for Arendt, he states:  “When into thought love climbs/ to it Being has inclined/ When thought with love illuminates/ grace has given what it radiates.” (pg. 87). Narcissus gazed into water and saw himself and because love convinced him of its perfection he became graced.

Unity between individuals opens the road toward tolerance. Union between individuals creates love and an inseparability far exceeding that of mere toleration. Arendt was born into a secular Jewish household. Heidegger was born into a pious Catholic household. Their respective religions are of interest since Heidegger found in Arendt an equal, a lover and a confidant. Heidegger would also later become affiliated with the Nazi party and scholars since this unfortunate political decision would attempt to incorrectly ground fascism into his thought and scholarship, namely, that of Sein und Zeit. However, critics of Heidegger often neglect his relationship to Arendt. Heidegger’s letters to Arendt, though sometimes drowning in banality, show not a trace of disapproval for Arendt herself. Their letters stopped between 1933, when the Nazis came to power and Arendt fled Germany and 1950, when Arendt ultimately forgave Heidegger his political decision. It is hard to ascertain in the letters whether she ever took his Nazism as a personal blow. The only clue to this, other than her forgiveness, is enclosed in a 1950 letter to Elfride Heidegger (his long time wife), which stated that she “was quite firmly determined never to love a man again.” (pg. 61).

Arendt’s and Heidegger’s love was a mirror. Their own intellectual genius reflected back at them. They could each have been Narcissus and the lake water respectively. But what is striking is that love transcended political unrest and religious and ethnic differences. They loved each other as they would love themselves. Considering the dark moments of twentieth century European history, this does not appear to be a profane love but rather a love that exceeds mere tolerance and reaches the sacred heights. Their letters reflect a long history of adoration.

Arendt died in 1975, just a few months before Heidegger. In a letter Heidegger wrote to Hans Jonas, he seems to have relinquished his proprietary hold on Arendt. He positions her within a circle of friends and “deeply mourns” with them. (pg. 217-218). He goes on to state that, “only grief and remembrance are left for us.” (pg. 218). Heidegger, in his later letters, became increasingly restrained in his use of language with Arendt. Perhaps because she became restrained in her approach to him, as a result of a satisfying marriage to Heinrich Blucher. What remains in the later letters is evidence of a strong friendship but their early love casts a curious shadow over their words. Who owned whose heart remains in question and one can only wonder if Heidegger would have laid a bouquet of Narcissi on her grave. Of course, the rest of us are condemned to merely echoing the love between them.