Author Archives: Paul

About Paul

Life in General I'm a retired university professor of English. I taught at Alcorn State University, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) for thirty-seven years. For twelve of those years I served as Department Chairperson. I loved my job. I loved teaching. Even now I remember how I always loved the "first day" of class when I would meet my new students. As any teacher will tell you, a classroom has a distinct personality. I have always felt that teaching has kept me young...well, young in spirit! But, I have always felt myself to be one of the lucky ones who managed to grab hold of a career and hang on to it. During my tenure at Alcorn, I wrote plays in the seventies and had a few of them produced on the university stage. Eventually I gave up playwriting as the medium of creative expression and turned to fiction. I love poetry but I've never thought of myself as a poet. In the late seventies I attended a writers' workshop at Bennington College, and there met John Gardner and Bernard Malamud. I had work sessions with novelists, Nick Delbanco and Frederick Busch, both of whom were wonderful writers and teachers. The Bennington experience did not translate into book sales or publications, but it was a turning point in my writing life. I returned to the teaching world a different person. In the eighties I got caught up with marriage, children, job and eventually divorce and financial disaster! In the nineties, I earned my PhD in literature and theory from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. There I worked with so many wonderful people such as Patrick Murphy and my dissertation director Karen Dandurand, a truly great woman and scholar. Interesting enough it was during this period, early nineties, that my writing life exploded with activity. I think it's mainly because I have never cared that much for academic research. I know. I know. There were moments when writing literary research that I became excited and all of that, but my great love was fiction. While at IUP, I wrote story after story. I read them at coffee houses, literary gatherings, parties. It was wonderful. With the millennium, I kept writing. My career started winding down, and my writing life began. In 2012, I married a lovely Japanese woman, and I'm learning Japanese. I will say writing is easier. We have visited Japan five times since we've married. My wife's mother lives in Osaka. Essentially, I want to learn Japanese so that I can hold a modicum of conversation with people I meet and especially with my Japanese mother-in-law who is a most fascinating woman. She is eighty years old and gets about like a teenager! Currently she is engaged in her own project of riding every train in Japan. How amazing is that? Sadako, my wife, and I plan to go to Japan in the Fall 2016, about a year from now. Not only is the country lovely, but the people are amazingly patient, kind, and gentle. Most everything about Japan appeals to me. Here's one example: One evening Sadako, her mother, and I were returning from a late evening meal at an Italian Restaurant in Osaka. It was around 10:30 at night. We had to walk a mile or so back to her mother's apartment. I'm talking inner-city here. Half way there we passed several children playing on the sidewalk, laughing and talking. Once we got to the apartment, I realized I had witnessed what to me was a miracle. In a modern city of 10 million, second or third largest in Japan, children can play outside at 10:30 at night! Here in Decatur, a city less than a quarter of a million, parents won't even let their kids go trick or treating without adult supervision. In Japan, guns are outlawed. It's that simple. The number of homicides in Jackson, Mississippi, in one month, outnumbers the homicides in all of Japan in one year. I'm not a gun lover. I don't condemn those who do love firearms. But I must say, the force of the reality that I was walking in a gun-free society was stunning. It still is. And that realization helps me with self-definition as well as my self-cultural definition. Who am I as a human and who am I as an American. It's something to write about. What I like I love writing. I've published one story thus far. "Walter Lee Comes Home from Vietnam." It was published in "The Sun Magazine" in 2013. Since then I've piled up a ton of rejections, but I'm still happily at it. I love reading. I read tons of Asian poetry with a emphasis on Tang Dynasty poets of China. Poet Du Fu is my absolute favorite. I have read everything written by the Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata. His novel, The Sound of the Mountain, is, so far as I'm concerned, one of the greatest novels ever penned by human. I wrote my dissertation on Anthony Trollope and must say I still love his novels...all 47 of them! I'm a big fan of the Victorians. George Eliot is at the top of the list. I'm currently reading Elizabeth Gaskill's lengthy novel, "Wives and Daughters." It's not long enough. Movies I love movies, especially International movies. Technology has been a godsend in this arena. In the seventies and eighties, if you wanted to see a movie from Europe or Asia then you had to travel to New York City to do so. Now, all you need is a Netflix account or some such. It's wonderful. The most amazing thing though is between reading and writing, I find it difficult to sit in front of a screen watching a two or three hour movie. Photography I came to photography late. My faculty gave me a camera as a parting gift. It was a huge surprise and I soon got taking nature pics. I lived in the country in Mississippi...deer in the front yard and all that...it was nice. I also had a pond so there were wood mallards and herons...and my life as a nature photographer was on its way. It has taught me patience. Other Hmmm, I am a moderate drinker. I love to sit out on our deck at midnight with a bottle of sake or wine or both and the temperature around 65 to 55, and with a log fire in the fire pit, and watch the moon rise from behind the trees. Autumn is my favorite season. With the temp between 50 and 65 degrees, I feel as if I can sit out on the back porch and write forever. With the temp between 30 and 49, I can sit inside by the gas log fire and forever again. Yes, I'd love to have a "real" fireplace, but what can I say. We're out in the country but it's a modern house. Nevertheless, I'm insanely happy and fortunate so I ain't complainin'.

The Feminine Touch

IMG_0562

Cross-gender writing is nothing new. When Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre, (1847) was published under Bronte’s non-gendered pen name, Currer Bell, huge arguments broke out in Victorian England as to whether or not the author was male or female. One heavy-hitting critic voted male because the novel reflected a “manly” prose. I like to think that some hundred seventy years later, we’ve come a long way.

All of this is to say that I, a male, don’t feel too uncomfortable writing a novel with a female protagonist. For point of view, I’m using third person limited. The protagonist is a public-school biology teacher. She’s twenty-five, moderately good-looking, intelligent, and single.

I realize that creating a protagonist whose gender is opposite of one’s own can be tricky business. A huge mistake any writer can make is to think: “Hey, this is easier than I thought.” At that point, one may well be dancing blindly on the rim of a volcano. Complacency is the writer’s greatest enemy.

I’m stuck in my own hetero-sexual male culture, but not so deep that I’m unable to contemplate the infinite intricacies of the feminine heart. Isn’t that a brave thing to say? Here’s a quick story, a true story, to explain…or confuse.

From the time I entered the first grade up to at least the fourth grade, my older sister, Mary, always combed my hair before school. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it myself, but it was one of those unquestioned school-morning rituals. She did this in what we called the “big” bathroom, a capacious well-lit room situated midway in a hallway that connected two large bedrooms. The “little” bathroom, on the other hand, was a tiny space crunched in a corner next to the kitchen.

In the “big” bathroom, a large wall mirror loomed over the lengthy linoleum counter, a veritable runway loaded with feminine paraphernalia: perfume, lotions, lipstick, salves, creams, powders, tissues, jewelry, brushes, combs, clasps of all sorts and colors. Half-opened drawers with soft silky scarves poofed over the edge, colorful ribbons, and golden boxes of glittering things.

Centered before the mirror, I sat on a cushioned stool. I think I was eight or nine years old. My slim, pretty sister stood behind me and combed my hair. One morning just as she finished, she gazed at my reflected image and said, “You would have been a pretty girl.”

Now one may think I would have been shocked at such a pronouncement, but I wasn’t. My “boy-ness” wasn’t being questioned. She simply made an impromptu remark that probably came as much from my quiet nature, as opposed to my resistant-to-grooming younger sister, Rosalea, (pronounced: Rosa-lee.) Also, it wasn’t so much what she had said, but that it was a girl, my sister, who said it. Had another boy said that to me, it would have been an instant fight. But it was a girl, my sister—someone I respected and in my little brotherly way: loved. The point being: I never forgot that moment.

Growing up in the heavily patriarchal 50s, my sister’s observation was an epiphany. I was a nice enough looking young boy, with a boy’s penchant for getting dirty, getting into scrapes, and not tying my shoe laces properly, a fact that drove my mother up the wall, but suddenly I was handed this rare gem: a comment that invited me towards that vague and strange place—the feminine spirit. I believe this was a seminal moment in the formation of my writerly-self. I did not for an instance think I was a girl, but in the deep recesses of shadowy, synaptic thought, my sister had ignited an inquisitive spark that would fuel a lifetime fascination and abiding respect for the world of the female.

We writers are a curious bunch…that may be one of the reasons we tend not to be so great in school. Curiosity demands a great deal of freedom, of looseness, of imagination. None of these are promoted in the left-brained classroom. And, it is a phenomenon that is quite often satisfied by informally listening to others.

I spent many pleasurable moments as Chair of an English Department, sitting behind the office desk, listening to students, often females, talking about their plans, their hopes, their fears. Most of our majors were young African-American women. Talking with them was always interesting—and for me, it was a continuous learning process. I still remember the one young lady who after talking about her latest boyfriend, turned and gazed out the window and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “If I were a man, I’d treat myself a lot better than I do as a woman.” I still ponder that remark.

Not so long ago, my wife and I were sitting outside having a glass of wine. We had just come back from Japan and were talking about our trip. She recounted how much her Japanese friends liked me. She finally said, “You know, it would be great if you could be Japanese, but you can’t—no more than I can be American.” It’s true.

It’s also true that even though I “may have been a pretty girl,” I can’t be a girl, no more than I can be Japanese. All of us writers, push boundaries, but we can only go so far.

Writing a novel with a female protagonist is not easy. I still struggle with particulars, but memory and experience serve me well, and of course there’s all of my incredible female blogging friends!

But allow me this one question for all blogging men and women. What issues do you face when writing across gender lines? Does writing about males and/or females in YA novels, adult novels, or non-fiction give you pause? Do you wonder if you’re off track somehow? How do you research? Let me know. I look forward to your ideas and remarks.

Cherry Blossoms

DSC_0853

Cherry Blossoms, a.k.a., Sakura.

The above is our second and shy third cherry blossoms this spring–less one petal. The first blossom fell to the recent cold front that also sent blizzard Stella roaring into the northeast. The weather has warmed. Robins peck about in the yard. Along the fence, buttercups dip and rise with a warm breeze.  Overhead white clouds glide across a light, blue sky. Soon there will be hundreds of cherry blossoms.

The cherry blossom holds a great deal of symbolic significance in Japan. It signifies, among other things, impermanence–the transient nature of life.  Thinking along these lines the other evening, while drinking a glass of wine and watching clouds, I pondered the issue of instant technology as it relates to the lengthy process of writing. I felt quite philosophical at the time. It could have been the wine. Maybe it was the clouds

I’m over halfway done with my novel, but for the past two weeks, I’ve been stuck on a difficult scene. I keep deleting and rewriting. I know. I know. I’m supposed to get it down on paper. Well, screw all that. I couldn’t let this scene go without its being at least half-way right.

Essentially as I write my first draft, I do a good bit of rewriting and indeed, revision. For instance, let’s say I’ve just finished Chapter 15. I realize that Chapter 14 doesn’t ring true. I scroll back and in the most severe case, rewrite the whole chapter, or I might simply revise one or two passages. And then on to Chapter 16. Since this is a first draft, I find myself punching the DELETE key—a lot.

When I have a complete first draft, I print out the whole thing. Then, I edit—with a pencil. Once edited, I return to the computer and type in the marked-up manuscript. Once done I let it sit for a few weeks and allow it to simmer–then I print out the second draft and start over.

This back and forth process can go on for several months, or God forbid, years. The point is, I end up printing out numerous versions. How many copies—versions—do I print? Four, five, six, ten! They pile up like the very tower of Babble, reaching hopelessly to Heaven.

My question is this: With our computer circuitry that operates in nano-seconds, does it take looonger than before the hi-tech revolution to write three pages? Do we use a hundred times more paper?

How does the cherry blossom figure into all this? Beats me. It was pretty.

So, what are your thoughts? Is our belief that technology makes writing go faster an ironic illusion? Without our realizing it, does the computer slow us down?

A Model for a Novel

dsc_0818-2

I’m halfway (50 K) through my novel. Early on I realized the setting—a girls’ summer camp/late spring—was becoming complicated. There were cabins for girls, cabins for counselors, a large meeting hall with a cafeteria, an outdoor stage, trees, gazebos, a parking lot…hedgerows, a house for the groundskeeper—sidewalks. I was losing control. I decided to sketch a map of the place.

The above map worked up to a point, but things started moving about…a life of their own, as it were. Then I started making notes on the map! As the novel progressed the map became more and more important and more and more cluttered. It became clear to me that I needed to move things to a HIGHER LEVEL.

I bought a large white board, a pack of construction paper, glue sticks, balsa wood, dowels, all kinds of stuff. I became a Hobby Lobby freak. At first, I used pieces of cut-out construction paper of various colors, to identify buildings as well as to mark their location and black strips to mark roads and sidewalks, then I cut out circles for trees. I kept it all loose in order to move things about as deemed necessary. Much “deeming” later, I went 3D. OMG!

silverbridge

Silverbridge Summer Camp for Girls

            The cabins were easy to construct—I used pine and miter saw. Painting them was time consuming. The gazebos were the toughest items to construct. I used my scroll saw for the cut-outs. After two or three tries, I had something I liked. I was especially proud of the cupolas. The whole model isn’t built to scale…but things are—more or less—depicted in a relative manner, so it’s not too out of whack. For instance, cars are nothing more than tiny blocks of wood painted various colors. No need to get too realistic.

Materials breakdown:

  • Roads and sidewalks – Corkboard with adhesive backing.
  • Cars – small painted blocks of wood.
  • Trees – dowels and Styrofoam.
  • The grass in the central area – green construction paper.
  • Green cabins for counselors – painted pine.
  • Yellow cabins for girls – painted pine. Four girls to a cabin.
  • Gazebos – painted pine with a balsa wood cupula.
  • Rose bushes – fluff balls. Got them at Hobby Lobby.
  • Green border hedge – square dowels.
  • Main building (red and black) painted pine. Tiny letters from Hobby Lobby.
  • Groundkeeper’s house—painted pine.
  • Boulder next to the flag—a rock I picked up while walking Cody, our black lab.
  • Windows and doors of buildings are construction paper cut-outs and glued on.

Now you may wonder how the writing was going during all of this? Constructing this model while writing its narrative provided an interesting source of depth. On several occasions, each caused revision to the other. I was amazed to literally see the landscape in a 3D aspect as opposed to the imagined. One or two scenes improved because I had a clearer vision of the physical space involved. I could see what my characters see from any vantage point. I used a small clip light to get an idea of the effect of morning sun and shadows. I could turn the whole shebang around and get an evening view…which I did. In short, I’m having a great time with this. Next project: a model of my protagonist’s cabin…why not?

This is the first time I’ve ever done this sort of thing, and it wasn’t planned. So! What are your thoughts? Suggestions? Have you done this sort of thing? Did your model or map, or drawing help you with your novel?  How so?

Just how BIG is a big word?

20131113_47

After a recent discussion on the use or non-use of BIG words in writing, I had to stop and think…what exactly do we mean when we say BIG WORDS? And to what extent is it okay to use these so-called BIG words in our writing?

If one Googles “SAT Vocabulary,” you will get a list of words a student should have mastered by his senior year in high school. Are they big words? For example, is discern a big word? It may not be so big to us bloggers who have been around the vocab track for some years now, but yes, it may be big to a sixteen-year old who reads maybe one book a year, and he’s forced to do that. And yet, discern may not be so big to another sixteen-year old who reads over fifteen books a year or more! But it’s quite possible neither one uses the word in casual conversation, a fact which brings me to an important point.

We all possess different vocabularies for different situations. We have a speaking or working vocabulary. And we have a reading vocabulary, which is usually the larger of the two. Now, I would hazard a guess that most readers out there – such as the young girl who reads novels on her e-reader—does not consult a dictionary, e-wise or paper, whenever she comes across a word she doesn’t know. If she can’t get the meaning via its context, then she just keeps on reading and that’s that. So, where does that leave us: the writers?

I think it means that we can use words with which our readers may not be familiar, but give strong contextual clues to help them out. For instance, my fourteen to eighteen-year old readers may not know the meaning of discern, but I choose to use it in my YA novel, then why not thus:

Without his glasses, Gerald could not recognize the young girl coming through the woods. He tried to visualize her as best he could but it was useless. He could see the shape of her head, the cut of her hair, which was short like his sister’s, and he noted she was thin, but he could not, hard as he tried, discern the features of her face, especially the tell-tale scar.

I think in this example, I give enough contextual clues that a young reader can easily understand the meaning of discern without having to look it up, and in the ideal world, my reader will learn a new word in the process.

What are your thoughts on this issue?

To be or to really be?

20161214_11

Buzzard drying his wings here in Alabama.

It’s been over a month since the election. And during this time I have questioned myself on more than one occasion: What is my responsibility as a writer?

The only answer that makes any sense to me is simply: to write as much as I can. That is all any of us can do—and should do. W.H. Auden was right to say, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” What we write in the late hours of darkness and cloudy days will lie about on lifeless sheets of paper or in flickering electronic digits. It does nothing. But with time and patience and enduring hope, our words will make it past our desks and into the hands of another human.

And who knows? It may be your romance novel that stirs the heart of a young woman to get a job and help her single mom with the bills. It may be your fantasy novel that arrests the young man’s attention just long enough for him to think about the poor family down the street. It may be, dear writer, that what you write may give another person pause to consider the miraculous beauty just beyond the back door of his home—the vast heavens or the single yellow pansy growing at the bottom of the frosted steps.

And thus, out of nothing comes something.

20121208_7

Is there hope? What are your thoughts?

 

The blog that inspired this comment of mine is Ruminationville: a gated community for the overthinker. If you get a chance, drop by and check out Leslie’s informative and insightful blog at Ruminationville: a gated community for the overthinker

 

 

Let’s Get Meta: a look at analogies and why we use them — M. Miles

As I read a novel, I like to collect some of its most evocative phrases and store them in my journal. Leafing through that journal, I’ve noticed that analogies (metaphors, similes, and the like) far outweigh all other types of phrases, which has led me to ponder the allure of the gems that make up […]

via Let’s Get Meta: a look at analogies and why we use them — M. Miles

View from Japan (2)

img_4205

It’s been a challenging two weeks of walking in Japan so here I am soaking my feet in a public foot bath. They are wonderful!

The trip has been absolutely wonderful. My last post on Japan focused on the places we visited so this time I thought I’d put more pics of folks! First of all one of the things you learn when visiting Japan is that in the busy train stations one lines up on the right of the escalator. This allows anyone who is in a hurry to catch a train to run up on the free side. It’s a good system.

dsc_9656

Folks are often in a hurry not because they are late, but because they have little time between trains. Businessmen, a.k.a. salarymen, have to purchase a ticket then run for the train.

dsc_9663

If you do find yourself with some free time you can perhaps read. I noticed that many Japanese men and women do just that while waiting and riding the trains and busses.

dsc_9681

dsc_0496

 

dsc_0461

Speaking of books we visited several bookstores in Tokyo. I was as happy as a puppy in a dog biscuit factory!

img_5124

img_5125

img_5114

If reading leads you to meditate upon the insanity of the world then you can visit as we did the Bonsai Village in Saitama.

img_5204

img_5205

The greatest part though of coming to Japan is being with family. Sadako’s family are a remarkable bunch. We never fail to have a great time talking, laughing, enjoying each others’ company. Here’s sister-in-law and our two nieces working together to prepare our meal for the evening.

img_5231

Here is Masako’s kitchen. It’s a remodel and very nice. The cabinets have self-locking doors in case of an earthquake which in fact DID happen. We had a 7.4 mag earthquake two days ago. We were in Ogane, a small town in Tochigi Prefecture. It was my first earthquake and I still don’t know how to describe the sensation.

img_5338

Here I am with Sadako’s mother, Masako-san, who happens to be 82 years old. We’re heading out for our morning walk.

img_5241

And here I am with my dear, sweet wife, Sadako.  She doesn’t like her pictures, but this one she agreed to let me use. We’re in Osaka. Sadako does all the planning and scheduling. I’m constantly amazed at how well she puts these trips together.

img_5243

We did eat well as well. I’ve gotten to where I can eat and enjoy traditional Japanese dishes. The three things I can’t eat are raw squid (two rubbery), tofu, (zero taste), and natto, (just plain nasty). But I do like sushi!

img_5326

The above meal was great. I also love Okonomiyaki. see below!

okonomiyaki

We had the above at Masako-san’s house. It’s delicious. And of course I LOVE noodles, soba and ramen. Below is ramen with a side dish of fried rice.

img_5121

I hope you enjoyed these pictures. We have had a terrific time and tomorrow we catch the ride home! So here’s a final pic. I don’t know who this woman is but she is a perfect example of the fact that you’re never too old to have fun!

dsc_0392