Most people I know are in agreement that 2016 and 2017 were not very good years. Shit years, in fact. 2018 looks to be just as turbulent with a greedy, fragile ego-ed, cheeto skinned dictator in charge of the world’s largest military, a bunch of venal, craven, greedy fucks running congress, Russians still meddling in our media and elections, playing stupid, uninformed people off of each other, and Robert Mueller taking is damn sweet time.
I need to renew memberships or donate to the ACLU, the NAACP, NOW, and a few local campaigns. We here in Kansas almost kept Ron Estes out of congress, but the Kobach fix was still too powerful. At the same time that I have hope, I’m also fearful that we, as a country, haven’t completely reached the bottom yet.
But this isn’t a post about politics. This is me trying to return to a good habit I had in 2015 with the hope of keeping my creative wheels greased, and my fingers on the keyboard instead of knitted idly under my chin.
First Saturday Catch-up is now the First Saturday report.
So, what the hell have I been up to besides some long winded social posts and a few new podcast episodes? Let’s find out.
WRITING & SUBMITTING
Since 2015, I’ve wrapped up work on a novel called The Palace of Winds, which is both a loose retelling of Jason and the Golden Fleece and a mythological imagining of my paternal grandfather’s life during the Great Depression. My grandfather died in 1992 while I was still an undergrad. We’d never really talked or got to know each other, and he was never much of a storyteller, at least to me. So, it was quite a surprise to me at his funeral to hear that he’d been a road kid during the Depression and hopped freight trains across the country, that spent time living in Los Angeles where he worked for a boxing promoter, then lived in Montana where he herded sheep, and finally sold WearEver cookware door-to-door in Philadelphia. Then, when my father died in 2010, I realized that my half-brother, who was only 10 years old at the time, would never know our father the way I did, and would know even less than I did about our grandfather.
No family should be without a story to tell, or a sense of where and from whom they descended. My dad’s side of the family has been notoriously devoid of that kind of history, and that sense of origin. By comparison, my mother’s family can trace their lineage back to a specific farm in Lower Saxony. So, not being much of a genealogist and more of a “mythologist,” I decided that since anyone can, really, trace the facts, I needed to write the myth of my father’s family as I would have wanted to see it growing up, and to do it as honestly and fairly as I could. This way, even if I never have children of my own, at least my half brother, whose mother made it quite clear she didn’t want me anywhere near her son (because I’m “sick” or something i.e. non-Christian), will have some kind of paternal family story.
I’ve also finished another novel called Far Nineteen. In it, I’m trying to wrestle with the idea of race and white privilege. The fictional city at the center of the novel was inspired by Tulsa, Oklahoma and the 1921 riot there that wiped out the prosperous Greenwood district. I also threw in a version of the Plymouth Belvedere that Tulsa buried with a time capsule in 1957. I created the fictional city so that I could reduce the amount of historical research I had to do, and be able to fiddle with the timeline and put my characters in the middle of it all and not have to address actual historical figures and sequences. I also needed to have one character be a witness to most of the central events in the story.
Since finishing Far Nineteen over the summer of 2017, I’ve been cautiously and slowly sending out queries for these books to agents. No luck to speak of. I’m tempted to go in and do some more revisions.
Lately, I’ve been fiddling around with two potential projects. One project is about a pair of men, one a widower, who have nothing in common but the widower’s dead wife. The other project is a follow-up to the Palace of Winds and is, loosely, about my late father.
After reading an old short story at a literary Christmas party, and reading Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s excellent new collection To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, I’ve decided to wander back into short fiction to see what I can do. It’s been years since I tried any short fiction, so we’ll see how it goes. For the last decade or so, I’ve been focusing on writing long works because, in some way, it seemed logical. With a full time job, the podcast, and life in general (reading, laundry, seeing friends occasionally), I felt that my writing time would best be spent on novels. Maybe it was a mistake. It’s been so long since The Evolution of Shadows as published I’m kind of back where I was in the years before it ever happened. I even have two finished manuscripts. This time, though, I think both are pretty good and since they can’t (or maybe they can?) both be published at the same time, it might not be a bad idea to turn my hand back to short fiction while I try to get The Palace of Winds and Far Nineteen sold.
I’ve gotten 48 rejections for The Palace of Winds so far. I have not included any submissions sent since the end of November, nor the submissions for Far Nineteen, which has only been sent out 3 times to agents and once to a contest (not selected). One agent requested the full manuscript for The Palace of Winds, but I’ve not heard back from that agent yet. I’ll count it as a reject at the end of January. When the rejections for The Palace of Winds reaches 50, I’ll stop sending it to agents and start a focused assault on small presses – even though TPOW has already been rejected by 8 publishers.
So, the score so far:
The Palace of Winds: 56 rejections, 1 request, 2 still out.
Far Nineteen: 1 rejection, 3 still out.
I’ve begun to lose interest in the comic book/superhero TV shows. I suspect I lack whatever gene would allow me to enjoy extended serializations like comic books and soap operas. It’s probably why I never really got into comic books themselves that much. I guess, to me, at some point, a superhero would get his or her personal shit together and when the next new villain shows up, despite that new villain’s never before seen powers or skills the hero wouldn’t be caught so flatfooted and dumbfounded. And can we please fuck-off with all the goddamned alternate reality and time travel plots?
Sadly, when western civilization dies, comic book superheroes will probably be seen by some future archeologist in the same way we see the Greek myths and heroes.
It seems I’m desperately in need of some grown-up visual entertainment and storytelling that is compact and precise. To that end, I’m looking forward to seeing The Shape of Water when it finally comes to my town. As I’m writing this, it’s listed as showing, but there are no showtimes.
Until then, I suppose I’ll have to rely on my iTunes movie collection. I’ve got a couple of Shohei Imamura movies I’ve not yet watched: A Man Vanishes and Vengeance is Mine. There’s also the Marilyn Monroe movie Clash by Night, and the 1977 movie Sorcerer.
In the coming weeks I’m going to see if I can hunt down a blu-ray or DVD of the 1998 Walter Murch re-edit of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The version advertised on iTunes turned out to be the sloppy, studio fucked-with 1958 theatrical release.
Just before posting this, I watched the 2015 adaptation of The Little Prince on Netflix. In addition to being exquisitely animated, I feel like it’s incredibly and beautifully subversive. It was very emotional to watch for several reasons. First, its gentle understanding of the way adults forget childhood and the cruel monotony of adult life was brutal, and second, what truly shattered me was knowing how much joy this movie would have brought to my friend Jaime if she were alive to see it. The Little Prince was one of her favorite stories and this film would have pleased her in every way possible.
And I am tired and I am sad, and the businessman is winning.
I have big reading plans for this year. My reading has been off-pace for a long while now, despite the continuous stream of book purchases. At first, it started with a string of novels I bought and then lost interest in, and that seemed to grow into a habit of reading a bit more non-fiction. And then a cheeto ascended to the White House and so sometimes I give in to my baser urges and just watch Netflix.
There are three shelves of double stacked, unread novels alone, and another two shelves of non-fiction I’ve not read. Basically, I could take one of my five shelf bookcases and fill it with unread books, two deep. That’s how little reading I’ve succeeded in finishing the last few years. I won’t be able to read them all in a year, but I’m going to try clearing at least one shelf. Of course, the book buying won’t stop. Micheal Ondaatje has a new novel coming out in 2018, and I’m sure one or two of my writer acquaintances will have a book come out.
My reading in the last months of 2017 included Duncan B. Barlow’s creepy metaphysical neo-noir The City Awake. It’s an excellent book all around, but it might especially be of interest if you’re a fan of noir or crime fiction and tired of the genre’s more formulaic writers. Duncan was recently a guest on the The Outrider Podcast, and you can hear more about The City, Awake, its origins, and Duncan there. Then, go buy the book.
Another book I recently finished was Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s lovely and stark collection of stories To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts. There is a lot of what I like in this collection: broken hearts, death, memory, failure . . . all those things that make us far more human, and humane, than any success that might happen to us. The lack of broad, paying venues for short fiction these days, and the homogenization of the publishing world in general, often squeezes out the finely crafted, graceful stories that remind us how significant and elegant the short story form is, in favor of the shocking, the experimental, the gimmicky, or the grotesque. It’s hard to keep up with the remaining university journals, especially being on a tight, struggling writer with a day job type of budget, so I’m doubly pleased by Caitlin’s collection as evidence that not all short stories that get published in small journals and then collected into books started out as comic listicles.
On the non-fiction side, the most recent book I finished was Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth by Joseph Campbell. It’s a collection of previously unpublished essays and lectures, on Arthurian legends, plus his master’s thesis on the Dolorous Stroke. I sometimes get the feeling that the literary community, and the various folklore, mythology, and theological communities, are all divided over Campbell. Maybe I’m just making it up, I don’t know, but I sometimes read writer types saying their story is based on the mono-myth, or that it’s structured on Campbell’s hero’s journey, as if somehow, that makes it a better story than other stories, or more deep and meaningful all by itself. I sometimes hear other writer types poo-poo Campbell and the idea of the mono-myth as too simplistic or inaccurate. There was an article on Patheos a while back by a folklorist about why folklorists hate Joseph Campbell, which left me kind of baffled. It seemed more like a defense of their existence disguised as a criticism of Campbell’s work rather than a serious criticism of Campbell’s work (which I would be very interested in reading). The basic take-away I got from the piece was that Campbell is an ethnocentric reductionist who didn’t understand scholarly history, and had a half-baked understanding or interpretation of Jungian archetypes and so you shouldn’t read him unless you then follow it up with lots of reading by modern folklorists who have gotten it right and are much smarter.
I find that claim specious, and petty. It seems instead that what the author and the other folklorists she mentions are really upset about is non-academics only knowing Campbell’s very first book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, or watching the PDS series The Power of Myth, rather than reading the folklorists these academics admire, and thinking folklore and mythology are the same thing. I’ve run across a number of writers hoping to imbue their work with deep meaning (or Star Wars like acclaim) by using Campbell’s outline of the mono-myth as a plotting device and mistakenly thinking that doing so will imbue their plinky adventure story with deep symbolic meaning. In the first instance these non-academics think they can reduce the entire academic discipline of folklore studies to a manageable nugget by comparing it to a book published in 1947, and largely written when Campbell was in his (douchebag) thirties. I’d be upset too if people kept reducing my life’s work to simplistic comparisons to The Great Gatsby, or, for that matter, Huckleberry Finn. Second, Ms. Jorgensen’s assertion about “writers” returning to Campbell’s “problematic lens” reeks of arrogance and superiority in it’s assumption that “writers” (does she mean to lump the self-published, serialized sci-fi writer in with the Nobel laureate literary writer) are picking up Campbell, believing it to be the end all and be all of narratological wisdom and sweeping all of literary history (which includes myths, folktales, fairy tails, legends, etc. with all their contradictory variety) into a single dung beetle’s ball of shit to make some poorly misunderstood assertion that all stories are equal.
As a writer who is interested in, aware of, and concerned with the problems of story and narratology, I’m aware of the subtle variations in narrative structure and intent, and how stories that appear similar on the surface can and do mean very different things depending on the audience, the social context, and authorial intent – we can see that not only in myths and stories from different cultures in the past, but in the way people from different cultures react to more recent things like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. We can even see something similar over time within the same culture, for example how America has revised and reinterpreted The Battle of Little Big Horn from gallant, heroic last stand, to tragic mistake, to brutal comeuppance for racist hegemony. I think Jorgensen and her anti-Campbell cohort do a disservice to Campbell’s entire work in comparative mythology as great as the lay person does to their work in folkloristics, by appearing to denigrate Campbell as a half-baked, ill-read ethnocentric and seemingly basing that position only on his first book alone. Attacking the scholarship of someone who lived and wrote his most famous work almost 70 years ago, in his thirties, and who then followed that with the four volume series The Masks of God where he addressed the development of myths in their cultural contexts, is petulant.
It also seems to me that their argument accusing Campbell of missing or flattening the surrounding context of culturally specific myths, legends, fairy tales, and folk stories is, in a way, unfair and misses the context of Campbell’s work, which was written by someone who witnessed the First World War as a teenager, then witnessed the Spanish Civil and the Second World War as an adult. These early 20th Century conflicts were, for all their geopolitical and economic reasons for happening, wars of ideology and nationalistic narratives. They were clashes of culturally specific memes (for lack of a better word) born out of each society’s particular and unique mythology and folklore being seen as unique and superior (any civil war is this same dynamic in an intra-social context, so, although Spain was a civil war, the opposing Spanish ideologies were internationally inspired, but locally mutated). Sure, Campbell may not have been very good at translating Sanskrit, he may not have had the same understanding of Jung as a full-fledged Jungian, but in the face of the widespread social upheavals where different societies with different folklores and mythologies were slaughtering each other at alarming rates, Campbell’s attempt to unify those mythologies, to highlight their similarities, feels like a gallant attempt to fight against the demonization of the “other,” which makes it possible for one society or culture to lustily decimate another.
So, now, perhaps, the reason Jorgensen’s “writers” are returning to Campbell with such force is that we see this same pattern of cultural demonization now not only in America’s “culture wars” between dominionist Christianity and everyone else, but in the conflict between East and West, between militant faux Islamists and everyday Muslims, between Muslims and Jews in Israel, between Buddhists and Hindus. Everywhere we see a clash of cultures, or ideologies, it comes from people only seeing the differences, not only in the real people before them, but in the cloudy ideologies behind them, and seeing those differences as imminent threats. Campbell, instead, points to the similarities, the commonalities, even if they’re strained, even if he has to ignore significant differences. In a world where people are applying the stories of various religions with a militant, dogmatic force that leads to alienation and embraces violence, getting lay-people and non-academics to begin to see the similarities between cultural traditions is, to me, wildly more important than burrowing into academic specialization and praising differences. Highlighting the differences is good only for those academics in their niches, carving out their intellectual turf, but it’s not necessarily good for the people confronted with a new neighbor who doesn’t worship the same god, whose cooking smells funky, and who dresses differently. Differences can be invigorating and enlightening, sure, but similarities and recognizing those similarities is what often gets us to overlook differences and recognize another’s humanity deeply enough to accept them and peacefully coexist.
If Campbell is popular, it’s because he wrote for a general audience instead of a caste of insular academic cohorts at a cryptically named conference, and he avoided sounding like a basement dwelling nerd, sneering (or attempting to refrain from sneering) at a new fan of the super hero movies for not knowing the actual origin story of Wolverine, or Cyborg and all the alternate universe demises and rebirths. Something in Campbell’s writing appeals to people in general, and resonates with people who don’t have an interest in the minutiae of folklore. Yes, these people often take Campbell in a self-referential way, especially among those looking to justify specious, selfish, destructive life choices by claiming they’re just “following their bliss,” but it’s also appealing to those who look at this deeply divided and troubled world and want, desperately, to find some way of exploring commonalities without having to become specialists in a tiny academic field.
As for the writers who are making big deals out of using the “mono-myth” to build their stories, well, I say that’s fine but it shouldn’t be construed as conferring some deeper meaning to their work than those who don’t use it. Superheroes follow the mono-myth Campbell laid out, as do most romantic comedies. It’s a good template for learning a certain type of dramatic structure, but it can’t confer meaning or depth simply through its application, and the subtle insinuation by Jorgensen that this is the problematic thing that’s happening when writers go back to Campbell is silly. Those of us who take this vocation, this calling of “storyteller,” seriously, who see ourselves as the descendants of those shamans and minstrels that created and recited the stories the Folklorists are now so intently and diligently studying the difference of, are aware of and spend time studying narratology, structuralism, and so on. Such things are the mechanics of what we do, but we writers are generalists, and sometimes mystics, but not specialists. At some point we’re going to stop reading detailed studies of the use of animal symbols in Slavic folktales of the Sixth Century and go write a story of our own and it might even have an animal in it.
Most writers I know who’ve read Campbell, even if all they read was The Hero with A Thousand Faces, also adhere to an idea espoused by another writer, the late John Berger, that goes “Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one.”
The only girl getting in my pants these days.