Updates and Enlightments

I’ve been working on a 2,000 word article for an outdoor magazine. Last night I submitted my first draft of that article to the editor. I say first draft because an editor will always want changes and in my experience those changes always produce a stronger article.

An editor knows their magazine better than anyone and a writer should always keep that in mind. As writers we should not fall in love with our writing. Writing is something malleable and the editor and the readers of the magazine always come first.

In editing down the manuscript, trying hard to reduce it to 2,000 words, I kept passing the sentence below. I liked it very much. I thought it explained a great deal in just a few words. So I didn’t edit it. Until the last draft in which I removed it entirely. It simply did not fit into the rest of the article but I kept denying that because I liked it. Are there entire sentences, not just words, that you can remove from your writing?

Reclamation districts are local entities paid by member property owners to maintain levees, canals, sloughs, pumps, and other infrastructure that protect farmland.

My poetry and fiction workshop at the Writers Studio (internal link) is in its second week and is proving to be interesting and challenging. Consider our current exercise:

Create a third-person narrator who’s observant and maybe witty, and have that narrator follow a character on his/her daily rounds. The character doesn’t have to be going any place special – the laundromat or the post office will do fine, as long as your character is reacting to something that’s already happened and as long as your narrator is tuned into the character’s mood. . . .

This is so far afield of my normal writing that I might as well be on the moon. In nonfiction magazine and newspaper writing there is little place for such creativity – we focus on the facts and not anyone’s mood, unless their mood and temperament come out in quotes. Or, if we have five thousand words to play with in The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, or Rolling Stone.

Sticking with who, what, when, where, why and how is always the best approach. My past editors would all agree. But who knows? It’s possible that at the end of this course I might be able to incorporate some of its ideas into my nonfiction writing. For now, I must get back to that exercise.

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Trying to Concentrate

I’m having a terrible time concentrating on a project. I’ve made coffee to help me focus. Krishnamurti came to mind. He was a brilliant teacher, amassed a great number of followers, and then turned them all away in his early thirties, saying there was no certain path to enlightenment. Especially by following him. There is a clarity to his thoughts that is humbling to ponder. He wrote little, what we read today was mostly transcribed by his believers over the course of hundreds of lectures.

Attention excludes nothing

Attention is not the same thing as concentration. Concentration is exclusion; attention, which is total awareness, excludes nothing. It seems to me that most of us are not aware, not only of what we are talking about but of our environment, the colours around us, the people, the shape of the trees, the clouds, the movement of water. Perhaps it is because we are so concerned with ourselves, with our own petty little problems, our own ideas, our own pleasures, pursuits and ambitions that we are not objectively aware. And yet we talk a great deal about awareness. Once in India I was travelling in a car. There was a chauffeur driving and I was sitting beside him. There were three gentlemen behind discussing awareness very intently and asking me questions about awareness, and unfortunately at that moment the driver was looking somewhere else and he ran over a goat, and the three gentlemen were still discussing awareness totally unaware that they had run over a goat. When the lack of attention was pointed out to those gentlemen who were trying to be aware, it was a great surprise to them. J.Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti site (external link)

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Experiment In Terror

I’m writing my first page length poem for the Writers Studio course I am taking. (internal link) This initial assignment won’t be critiqued but that doesn’t put me at rest. I’m concerned that people won’t know it’s my first long poem. The only poetry I’ve written, in fact, were a few stanzas, decades ago.

The non-poet in me thinks I’m lazy for not making it rhyme, but so much free verse exists that I probably shouldn’t be concerned. I’m also aware of how much more important individual words are when there are so few of them compared to an essay or article. A full story has to develop within a limited word count. Every word tells.

While researching a poem to emulate, I discovered one of my favorite books is now online, Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. (external link) I’ve written about Rexroth before. (internal link) Deeply aligned with nature and exotic landscapes, Rexroth’s translations introduces us to country that is far from city life. People’s problems and worries remain, universal themes predominate, but in fresh settings that makes us pause and reflect, rather than rushing through.

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I’m in the middle of several assignments and until they are finished my mind won’t rest. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, this restlessness, not quite physical but almost. This stanza from “What’s Up” always comes to mind:

And so I cry sometimes
When I’m lying in bed Just to get it all out
What’s in my head
And I, I am feeling a little peculiar
― 4 Non Blondes, What’s Up?

It’s damning, picking the right words. Huxley expertly deliniates the gulf between having a thought and expressing that thought. That goal of clarity in communicating races ahead of us as our shadow, never to be caught:

“What a gulf between impression and expression! That’s our ironic fate—to have Shakespearean feelings and (unless by some billion-to-one chance we happen to be Shakespeare) to talk about them like automobile salesmen or teen-agers or college professors. We practice alchemy in reverse—touch gold and it turns into lead; touch the pure lyrics of experience, and they turn into the verbal equivalents of tripe and hogwash.”
― Aldous Huxley, The Genius And The Goddess

The key to this is preciseness, selecting the right words for the job, as we would choose a shovel over a broom. Better to be accused of pedantry than to give into sloth. Our readers deserve the respect that they pay us by reading what we write. Humpty Dumpty in Alice would gleefully pull us into nonsense if he had a chance. He does pose, however, a deep question at the end which argues for his sanity.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

But now, back to the writing and the restlessness.


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Moby Dick According to Bob Dylan

This excerpt is from Dylan’s Nobel Prize lecture (external link). Twain may be America’s greatest writer, but Melville is our Shakespeare:

Moby Dick is a seafaring tale. One of the men, the narrator, says, “Call me Ishmael.” Somebody asks him where he’s from, and he says, “It’s not down on any map. True places never are.” Stubb gives no significance to anything, says everything is predestined. Ishmael’s been on a sailing ship his entire life. Calls the sailing ships his Harvard and Yale. He keeps his distance from people.

A typhoon hits the Pequod. Captain Ahab thinks it’s a good omen. Starbuck thinks it’s a bad omen, considers killing Ahab. As soon as the storm ends, a crewmember falls from the ship’s mast and drowns, foreshadowing what’s to come. A Quaker pacifist priest, who is actually a bloodthirsty businessman, tells Flask, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.”

Everything is mixed in. All the myths: the Judeo Christian bible, Hindu myths, British legends, Saint George, Perseus, Hercules – they’re all whalers. Greek mythology, the gory business of cutting up a whale. Lots of facts in this book, geographical knowledge, whale oil – good for coronation of royalty – noble families in the whaling industry. Whale oil is used to anoint the kings. History of the whale, phrenology, classical philosophy, pseudo-scientific theories, justification for discrimination – everything thrown in and none of it hardly rational. Highbrow, lowbrow, chasing illusion, chasing death, the great white whale, white as polar bear, white as a white man, the emperor, the nemesis, the embodiment of evil. The demented captain who actually lost his leg years ago trying to attack Moby with a knife.

We see only the surface of things. We can interpret what lies below any way we see fit. Crewmen walk around on deck listening for mermaids, and sharks and vultures follow the ship. Reading skulls and faces like you read a book. Here’s a face. I’ll put it in front of you. Read it if you can.

Tashtego says that he died and was reborn. His extra days are a gift. He wasn’t saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection.

When Starbuck tells Ahab that he should let bygones be bygones, the angry captain snaps back, “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man, I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” Ahab, too, is a poet of eloquence. He says, “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails whereon my soul is grooved to run.”  Or these lines, “All visible objects are but pasteboard masks.” Quotable poetic phrases that can’t be beat.

Finally, Ahab spots Moby, and the harpoons come out. Boats are lowered. Ahab’s harpoon has been baptized in blood. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered again. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat again. On the third day, another boat goes in. More religious allegory. He has risen. Moby attacks one more time, ramming the Pequod and sinking it. Ahab gets tangled up in the harpoon lines and is thrown out of his boat into a watery grave.

Ishmael survives. He’s in the sea floating on a coffin. And that’s about it. That’s the whole story. That theme and all that it implies would work its way into more than a few of my songs. . . .

A few thoughts on Bob Dylan (internal link)

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What Are Your Unwritten Books, Essays, And Articles? Part 1.

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ― Toni Morrison

If so, I should never stop writing or eat again. For the writer, the whole world is to be written about. But how do you pay for your passion? A book, like an invention, must have a market. There must be others who want to read what you write. Some say writing should be your lifeblood, not necessarily your livelihood. Which is true. But only to a point. Unlike Van Gogh, not all of us have a brother to subsidize us. Or a grant.

Here’s a short list of books, essays, and articles I would like to write but which are stillborn, doomed to financial failure. I can’t write about them in my spare time; they must be given less priority than my paid work, that, while perhaps less interesting, pays the bills.

1- How city layout is dictated by codes, regulations, and restrictions. You can’t build a European village in America unless it’s in Disneyland. Today, there must be a certain amount of space for emergency services to operate, particularly for the fire brigades. Streets must be navigable to huge trucks, with certain turning radius required, and they must have sidewalks of a specified width. Gutter heights are dictated as well as requirements for storm drains. In most large California cities a certain amount of trees are required for parking lots, and even their varieties are spelled out, picked for their shade and health characteristics. A book would look at the how the law designs layout.

2- In a similar vein, a book on car design restrictions might be interesting. You can’t have a sleek and stylish steering wheel anymore. An airbag is almost always present, required by law. Instead of something svelte, your wheel has to be fat and chunky. Do you know what an “A” pillar is? They’re on either side of the windshield. They used to be unobtrusive but today’s requirements demand these structural elements greatly strengthen the car frame. More fat and chunky. A book would look at how Federal requirements have altered present automobile design.

3- I’ve written how I’d like to write an anthology of Stanton Delaplane’s work. (internal link). My proposals have been rejected but I’ve only sent out queries to three publishers. I should probably put more effort into my search for a press.

4- I’ve also written quite a lot about writing a book on Nevada agriculture, past and present. I’ve even devoted an entire website to a book proposal on it. (external link) Unfortunately, Nevada doesn’t have the population to sustain a profit making book. Failing that opportunity, I’d like to write on Nevada’s mining industry. I could do a good job on both.

5- An article on prospecting for rare earth minerals. I’m fascinated by the search for these minerals, now in demand by high-tech, but I’d have to do a tremendous amount of research before I started writing. All of which would work against performing my paid work.

I never want to wallow in what might be, instead, I’ll add to this list at another time. Right now, I should prepare for tomorrow’s online course that will never earn me a dime: a poetry and fiction workshop. But it’s tradecraft. I always want to be a better writer. As Candide would say, after listening to today’s lament, “All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden.”

I’d be very interested in what your dream writing would be. E-mail me: thomasguyfarley@gmail.com or post a reply to this blog post.

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My Essay In The Latest Temenos Journal is Out

The Temenos Journal has published my first creative nonfiction essay. It’s called “Describing The Elephant.” It’s a long read and often painful, but there is hope at the end. Just like all good stories. I penned this introduction:

Asked if the Jedi were real, Han Solo haltingly confesses that he once doubted it. “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is — it’s true. The Force. The Jedi. All of it. It’s all true.”

“Describing the Elephant” challenges the reader to accept that the supernatural is real and all that understanding implies. Denying the paranormal is easy for anyone who hasn’t experienced it. For those of us that have, we struggle to relate what we’ve seen, heard, or felt.

I was not looking for another world, nor did I ever think one could exist. Without asking, I was granted a fleeting glimpse of something I cannot fully describe. I am a blind man holding the tail of an elephant, powerless to know the animal’s true, full form. But I know the beast exists. It’s real. It’s true. All of it is true.

http://www.temenosjournal.com/current-edition.html (external link — enable Flash)


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