Storyteller versus Writer

I tell people I'm a writer.

It's possible that I'm lying ... or at least that I think I'm lying.

I'm a student of story. I love the feel and shape of a good story. I've spent my life enjoying watching, listening to, and reading stories that other people tell; after a lifetime in the pursuit of story, I generally know which way a good one will bend and twist before sticking its landing.

It's this gift, or skill, that gave me the courage to write Here Be Monsters, my first novel. I knew that I could tell a story, having absorbed thousands (maybe tens of thousands) in my life, and knew the guy, and place, and situation, I wanted to wrap the story around.

It's a good story ... it could be written better. The subsequent novels and novellas were written better, and were still good stories.

The dozens of short stories I've got printed out and milling around in my office are all good stories ... the question I'm hoping to answer in the positive at the end of my time at Goddard is whether or not they're well written, crafted.

I think that a story being well-written goes beyond spelling and grammar and syntax ... it plums the depths of craft, along with the iterative, obsessive, practice of polish.

The concept of polish is the hill upon which my becoming a writer very often hangs, and stalls ... working the story again and again and again, then dusting it off and working it some more, until there are no bumps or snags in the flow of words or sentences, dialog or exposition, that drop the reader out of the hallucinatory trance the story has lulled them into.

I have, in the past, been satisfied with telling a cool story, comfortable in the knowledge that my ability to communicate that story through words is sufficient for transmission from my brain to my reader's ... the pursuit of my MFA at Goddard has been the pursuit of a greater understanding of the writer who lives within the storyteller I am, and to encourage the writer to work just as hard as the storyteller.

I feel that I am in the midst of a transformative process, sliding along a continuum towards the writerly end of things while hopefully still maintaining the storyteller ... I imagine the writer abides in the brain, roaming up and down the dusty shelves that line the passages of my skull, while the storyteller lives in my heart, beating and racing and rushing with my excitement each time we sit down at the laptop with an idea as our polestar.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking when I woke up this morning (which is a polite way to say "when Olive woke me up because she thought she heard a bear outside") ... I'm ready for my second cup of coffee.

Thanks for indulging me ... keep reading, I'll keep writing (and storytelling).



3 Easy Ways to Build Your Writing Community

Writing is a task best done by oneself.

Wait, that's not true ... let me rephrase that to explain how I'm right, as well as how I'm wrong.

Writing your first draft is generally best done in private; what happens before and after that first draft is best done in some form of writing community.

One of the ways in which writing is difficult, at least for me, is that dichotomy, the bi-directional pull of introvert and extrovert.

I love sitting alone for hours or days, pulling stories out of dark corners of my brain, but I need people outside of my skull to help me polish my work, and eventually, hopefully, to enjoy it.

Finding and maintaining the balance is, I believe, critical to the success of any writer ... I don't claim to have THE answers, but I have some answers that have worked for me.

Three things I've found helpful in building a functioning writing ecosystem for myself to live, and flourish, within (in addition to the lonely writer/writing thing, which I've got down) are:
  • Writing exercises
  • Reading group
  • Writing group

Writing Exercises: I like story dice as writing prompts. Roll the dice, have everyone fix on one or more of the images, write for 10-15 minutes, then everyone who's comfortable shares what they wrote. It's a great way to prime your creative pump, work on building from bare ideas, and growing your comfort with sharing material with people.

Reading Group: There are tons of wonderful books on the craft of writing, and the writing life, and getting together with a group of writers to talk about one of them once a month or so is a great way to learn about writing as well as learn from other writers. I started a writers bookclub in Keene, and it's growing each month, with each book we read and talk about amongst ourselves.

Writing Group: sharing your writing with a group aimed at getting feedback on how to improve your material can be intimidating, but it's an invaluable resource and aid in polishing your craft and your product. Finding the right group for you can be difficult, as different groups have widely varying goals and methods; you should try any given group for a couple of sessions to see how the fit feels, and then either fully invest or move on in search of a better fit.

Where? ... How?
All three of the tools I've mentioned may already exist in your neighborhood, or at least nearby. If you ask people at indie bookstores and your local library, or search FB or Google, you will likely find numerous options.

If for whatever reason, these things don't exist near you, or the configuration for some reason (time, distance, population, focus, etc.) doesn't work for you, then you're in luck ... you can start your own.

Ask the library or bookstore if they'll let you use the space to start a group for any/all of these activities, and you'll generally be pleasantly surprised at their reply.

Once you begin making regular use of these three devices to grow and nourish your writing community, you'll be surprised at the improvement in the output and quality of your writing.



Exploring Iceland in Relentless Daylight

I just got back from two weeks in Iceland with my wife and son. We had a spectacular time exploring the fascinating island-nation. It occurred to me on landing back at Logan at sunset the other night, driving home in the dark through legions of Masshole drivers, that we'd been living in the light for two weeks.

Although the sun technically sets for an hour or two out of every 24 at this time of year, the sky never gets darker than a cloudy afternoon. We'd flown in, rented a car, and spent the last two weeks driving Route 1, also called the Ring Route, which circles Iceland.

Iceland is huge, and although summer is the crowded season, we more often than not found ourselves alone in the spectacular countryside, which has been shaped by fire and ice over the last few million years.

The natural world feels fierce to one experiencing it through Iceland ... all sharp edges and roaring water, walls of ice and untenable heat.

The things of man skirt or drape the powerful forces that shaped, and are still shaping, the world we wandered through, a feeling of man's impermanence being one of the big takeaways from our time out on walkabout (driveabout).

Things not tended by the people living there will be swallowed up quickly.

Route 1 is at its best a two-laner, but most of the time is dominated by wild sheep, unpaved sections, blind hills/turns, and one lane tunnels and bridges ... at most any time, you can stop in the middle of the road for a picture or pee-break, and not worry about traffic from either direction for minutes (or hours).

Glaciers and rivers work tirelessly to cut through layers of volcanic rock and hexagonal crystals deposited by volcanoes over the millennia.

Although smaller in size than New York State, Iceland varies from day to day (sometimes mile to mile) as you wander along the roads men have scratched upon her surface. It would take a truly jaded soul not to be amazed a hundred times each day while exploring.

There's something about the power of the forces at work on the land, the roaring and the absolute quiet, the baking heat that comes from the ground through the soles of your shoes in places along with the chill wind that rushes down from glaciers above at all hours ... it inspires, pushing and pulling at your brain, prompting a new contemplation of your relationship with the world you live upon.

This cave gave us shelter from a cold morning, steam from the geothermally-heated water pouring in from a thousand fissures in the floor and walls forcing balance with the sleet the skies were hurling at us.

The fjords and mountains fields of lupine (a stranger, introduced and since run rampant across the countryside) threaten constantly to overwhelm the senses ... I had ideas for new stories, and for reworking stories I've already written, a dozen, a hundred, times a day, but most of them were chased away by the onslaught before I could catch and write them down.

The two-way, one-lane tunnels (and bridges, to a lesser extent for reasons I don't fully understand) forced a focus I generally tried to avoid while experiencing Iceland ... in the minutes I was involved with negotiating these I had no time or space in my head for anything but muscle-memory driving and paying attention to visual stimuli.

It was bracing, if scary, but in a good way (after the fact).

Every Icelandic horse with blond hair reminds me of Jon Bon Jovi, and I spent parts of each day humming "Living on a Prayer".

Thanks to the superabundance of both geothermal energy and water in Iceland, every town has a sundlaug, or public pool, and we stopped off to revel in most of them.

The rigidly enforced policy/practice of showering to clean before getting in the pools is at first nervous-making to body-shy Americans (or at least it was to me, especially when changing and bathing in front of young children of both sexes), but after a time it just is ... the precursor to a relaxing and enervating ritual that I came to love, and have been missing since we got home.

The picture above is of Grettislaug, a hot pot out in the wild, at the end of a rugged peninsula pointing at the Arctic ... this pool, unlike the tame ones in towns and villages across Iceland, had a healthy colony of algae growing on the bottom and a few spots in the floor where superheated water that would have raised blisters in a few seconds if not avoided kept it full, and me warm on a cold and breezy day by the Greenland Sea.

The churches, and spirituality, of Iceland and Icelanders never ceased to inspire. In places where there didn't seem to be enough people to fill a phonebooth you could always find a church in a place/position that made it clear the natural world was a part of the belief system. There was also ample evidence of a deep, millennia-old, faith in the existence of elfs, fairies, and witches.

As the sky was always light, and the summer was reputed to be the high season, we generally started and ended our days early, adjusting our clocks so that we'd be out of sync with crowds that never really materialized.

I found it bizarre to be so wedded to my watch for a sense of time during the weeks we spent in Iceland ... I have spent much of my life satisfied with looking at the sky, and knowing within a few hours what time of day it was, there was no way to do that on this trip, and I became a slave to my watch's version of time, even though I generally had nowhere to be, nothing to do, besides be.

Circumnavigating Iceland gave me a host of new ideas, new moods, new colors with which to paint my stories ... although we've been back a few days now, I can still feel it all soaking in, things finding their final form, or shape, in the parts of my brain where I store memories.

The vastness still defies imagination, the hours we spent alone on the road, or in the mountains, sheep and wind for allies, seem something made up, a dream.

I loved exposing myself to the numbing wind off the sea on this day ... in much the same way that I loved exposing myself to the tireless magnificence of Iceland every day. I could feel layers of boring, commonplace, sameness peeling away, abraded off of me by what I saw and did along Route 1.

Nobody is the same from one day to another, but I genuinely feel that my life and brains and soul and path going forward have been irrevocably altered by the counter-clockwise path I followed around the rim of this amazing country for 14 days.

Hákarl keeps bouncing around in my brain ... it's fermented/putrefied Greenland Shark t5hat captures something of the essence of Iceland for me.

Hard winters make for hard choices. Icelanders knew that eating Greenland Sharks made them sick (or killed them if they ate enough), but starving was also a bad option. Some brave soul discovered that shark they'd buried for a few months had benefited from the degradation of the overwhelming amounts of urea in the flesh into ammonia that would mostly evaporate if they left the exhumed shark hanging in the wind for a few additional months.

More than any other nasty food of which necessity is the mother, Hákarl had always fascinated me, so I made a point of stopping at the museum celebrating the "food", which also happens to be the nation's top producer of the stuff ... we all tried some, and although it's not going to replace steak or nachos in my diet, I could manage it if I had to in order to survive.

The thing that grabbed me is that these vikings who'd left their homes in Europe behind, to settle this rough and brutal island far to the north, found a way to push back at lack and starvation and death ... to shout no in the face of literal darkness (as in the summer it never truly gets dark, so in the winter it never truly gets light in Iceland).

Something in me changed when I learned about, and tasted, Hákarl.

We explored the inside of a volcanic tube, venturing more than hundred feet, through cavern after cavern down and away from the light and warmth up above. When we had reached the deepest point of our journey, the guide with us asked everyone to turn off their lights and stand quietly in absolute darkness ... the first we'd seen since arriving, maybe ever.

It was interesting to hear the drips of water filtered through a thousand cracks in the volcanic rock all around us, to feel the coldness pulling at the edges of our clothes in search of warmth to steal, to feel the dark, a solid and powerful thing, pushing at my eyeballs ... it looked the same in any direction, with eyelids open or closed, with fingers in front of or pushing at my eyeballs.

It was an unnerving experience, more so given we'd been living in perpetual light for weeks, and we all rose back into the world of the light and the living different than we'd been an hour earlier.

I'm interested to see what the new Jamie is, the Jamie who went behind this waterfall with his love, and came out the other side ... who saw the sun set on June 4th, and then not again until the 18th, who explored the fire and the ice, who was scraped and polished by wind and sand.

I feel as though I stepped off the world for a couple of weeks, and returned a radically changed man.

My writing will be, must be, altered by the changes, the miles, the nightless nights ... I'm eager to meet the new me, and to share him with the new world I've rejoined.

JS - 6/21/18


Discovering America

I recently returned from an extended trip around the country with my son Ben. We traveled a huge loop around the perimeter of the country, with the help of Amtrak's Railpass. Starting in Albany, we looped to Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, LA, New Orleans, Washington DC, and then home again, after riding about 6,500 miles of train track in varying levels of comfort.

The day we headed out, packing light

Great art
 Great zoo
 Great aquarium
We stayed in a wonderful AirBnB
It's a beautiful city, and we explored and enjoyed it thoroughly
Then we were back on the train for about two days,
in a roomette, on the lovely run from Chicago to Seattle
 The Museum of Pop Culture was fantastic, this is Isaac Asmiov's typewriter
We explored all around the public market and piers 
 We visited the space needle, even closer than this picture indicates
 The harbor cruise was lots of fun, and the not-great weather kept the crowds down
Friends of ours took us on an underground exploration of Seattle beneath the streets
 Another, shorter leg, down the coast, to San Francisco
 We loved the aquarium
 A trip out to Alcatraz was both a fun boat ride,
and surprisingly one of our favorite excursions of the whole trip
Exploring the waterfront by e-scooter was a cool way to cover lots of ground
and see things we'd have otherwise missed. 
 We caught up with a friend of mine from grad-school who works at Google, and got a really cool tour
A harbor cruise that went out and under the Golden Gate Bridge was a highlight,
and well worth the sunburns we both got
 LA's aquarium was a fun surprise
 We loved out visit to the LaBrea Tar Pits, especially wandering around the park and finding spots where the tar is pushing up through the ground outside of the display areas and museum
We went to see the Chinese Theater 
 and were lucky enough to see a fun movie in the grand old moviehouse
 We had a late-night departure from the famous train station,
pushing on across the south to New Orleans
 We stopped in Houston long enough to grab lunch at their aquarium
 Our AirBnB in New Orleans was wonderful and located perfectly, along one of the streetcars, which we rode up and down to the French Quarter and the other things we saw and did in the Big Easy
 We took a river cruise, which was fun and gorgeous,
with a great band playing on one of the lower decks
In DC, in addition to seeing some museums and monuments and wandering the National Mall, we were able to connect with My Aunt Anne for a morning, which was great, after too long a time.

We made a point of planning ahead for the things we wanted to see and do and eat, trying to take full advantage of each 3-night layover in the major stops on our trip. I was able to do a bunch of reading and writing on the trains, and to a lesser extent during downtime we would build into our days in the cities we visited. I was mostly successful (I think) in balancing learning with fun for Ben. I don't have much more time with him in this way, this flavor of relationship, so I wanted to cram in as much as possible, staying just short of "TOO MUCH, DAD!"

It was a fantastic trip, a great time to spend with my son, and an interesting opportunity for both of us to broaden our perspectives on this wondrous and diverse country we're living in.

If you're interested in seeing more pics from the trip, you can follow this LINK to a photo album on FB, which has hundreds of my best pics from each stop.

It's given me lots to think, and write, about ... I just finished the second semester of my MFA program at Goddard, and I'm using the brief pause to circle back to Oasis, the fantasy novel that's been languishing on the backburner for nearly a year now. 

Thanks for stopping by! - JS