Thursday, December 12, 2013

New Show to Recommend: GETTING ON.


 

After watching the first episode of GETTING ON, my main thought was that it was a privilege to get to see the work -- it's funny and smart and devastating and, especially in the second episode, Laurie Metcalf, is so brilliant, so subtly. (And her face -- a natural face, unstiffened by too many anti-aging attempts -- is all the more detailed and nuanced. She just has more range than others who've had so much work done.) As jaded as we are about sex and explosions in the entertainment industry, by God, I feel like I'm watching theater, really, really fantastic theater. Niecy Nash and Ellen Borstein, superb. 
 
Now I have a bias. One of the reasons I'm a writer is because I spent a lot of time as a teenager in my grandmother's nursing home. I made rounds, to be honest. I was well aware of memories eroding, lives washing away. It developed in me a hoarder's desire to collect, and I feel like it's a wonderful place to hit some of our deepest emotional intersections -- humor and loss, strength and ultimate frailty. I'm just thankful that this show is an option -- that people, first in the UK then here at HBO, took it on.

Friday, December 6, 2013

and when i talk about my grandparents with their love of poodles and handguns, here's what my Christmases looked like as a kid. This photo was taken in crisp focus but the cigarette smoke was so thick that it only seems fogged. These were years of fog. (From left to right: Angel, Gigi, Jacques, Mimi, and only seeing the tuft of her head, Suzie. And that was CLASSIC Suzie, so humble... Gigi was, of course, the real looker.)

A random photograph found in the family photos.  Knowing my family, this person's nickname could have been Lonesome, but I love that someone wrote in Who? which makes his name Lonesome Who. I will be writing a character named Lonesome Who. I love the tilt of his head, one thumb in his pocket, one hand on the headlamp.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What am I getting you guys for the holidays? Words. New vocabulary. From our house to yours.

1. Aikman, noun, definition: The wrinkle horizontal wrinkle between eyebrows due to aging (or football helmets), not to be confused with the "eleven" which are vertical wrinkles.
Used in a sentence: You're thinking so hard, you've got an Aikman. Or: Should I Botox this Aikman?

2. Southerland, verb or noun, definition: wearing a long shirt or sweater but no pants. (Derivation? Animal House.)
Used in a sentence: Oh, I didn't know you were Southerlanding today -- why no pants? Or: Can we have a rule like no Southerlands in the kitchen?

3. Bobo-rando, noun, definition: stray guest brought to the party and/or holiday.
Used in context: Person A: Who's the guy in the elf shoes bogarting the shrimp? Person B: Some bobo-rando who Janet showed up with.

4. Of course we wouldn't be a true Red Sox family if we didn't say the best new word of the year is "rejubilation," offered to us by Victorino who seemed to invent the word live and on-air after putting his team into the World Series. (Just also such a great interview because you see how his everyone counted me out mindset was put to use. Writers, take note.) I don't think I have to define this one for you.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Chapel Talk on grief, loss, the power of stories and much more from novelist Thomas Christopher Greene

Thursday, November 14, 2013

In Praise of my Father, Bill Baggott

My father, Bill Baggott, whom I love and adore, has published his first book. For the past year or more, I'd ask him, "How's the novel coming?" And he'd say, "Not well. I write badly. The characters are wooden. And I actually got so bored I had to stop for the day." On top of writing the book, my father -- not an artist -- decided to paint his own cover. "I wanted the poor quality of the book to be reflected in the artwork for the cover," he explained. AND NOW that the book is out, he made his own pr swag -- little bookmarks with blurbs on them. He said, "I didn't want to bother real people, asking them to read the book so I made them up."

THESE ARE PERHAPS MY FAVORITE BLURBS OF ALL TIME.

"...The first half of the book is rather boring, but the second half is better..." Chicago Daily Planet

"...The writing style is bland, but informative..." Christian Science Mentor

"... The cover design and art are nicely matched to the amateur level of the wriring..." NYTunes (the typo, though discovered after printing, seemed perfect to my father so he didn't print new ones.)

AND my personal fave: "... We understand that, mercifully, the author had a day job outside the arts." Rolling Stoned Magazine.

The novel BLOODLINE 1777-1797 is not available wherever books are sold. In fact, unless you're part of my Dad's side of the family -- did I mention it's based on family history? -- it isn't available at all.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The New England Chapter of Non-New Englanders

Thinking of starting The New England Chapter of Non-New Englanders. To join, you have to have been raised elsewhere or if raised in New England, you have to have lived outside of the region longer than you lived in it. There will be rules, of course. No chin-uppedness, lots of over-sharing, encouraged whining, explicit question-asking, TMI and bragging required, ridiculous stories that can't possibly be true, yes, bring it; no talking about organic foods or farm-shares of ANY sort; weather-bitching will have its own time-slot, but no one is permitted to over-enthuse about "foliage"; no comfortable shoe-wearing; sandals with thick socks will result in immediate termination of your membership; it will simply not be tolerated. Ditto Whole Foods.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

At Writer Unboxed.

I write an occasional column for WRITER UNBOXED. Today, I tell it straight up. It's honest -- maybe harsh in places, but this is what I had to give.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Glimpse into the Extraordinary and Glorious Life of my Grandmother, Mildred Holderfield Smith Lane, who Arrived on Friday the 13th, 1918 -- 95 years ago Today



I started to write about the life of my grandmother -- Mildred Verlette Holderfield Smith Lane -- and frankly I was overwhelmed. For one thing, I wrote an entire novel about a young woman raised in a house of prostitution during the Great Depression, The Madam, which was based on my grandmother's early life, but her life expanded from there -- wildly and beautifully and sometimes magically. I can't begin to explain it -- not without starting at the very beginning of it all, which I may do one day, for the family.

And so here I am just going to post photos of this amazing glamourous woman -- wise and wily; she loved deeply. She lived wildly. She was so stunning that, even in old age, people would stop her in the grocery store just to tell her how gorgeous she was. She was shocking and also spiritual. She was called up on stage once to sing with Mel Torme. She had a gorgeous voice and played the piano -- good honky tonk -- and, damn, she could cook. She loved poodles -- had five at the same time during my youth -- and next to her bed there was a picture of a priest -- a man she loved.

She married at fifteen -- my grandfather -- and had my mother at seventeen. They grew up together, my mother and grandmother -- their love for each other inexpressibly deep. Truly, a love to behold.

My grandmother lost a baby at birth, a boy, and when she was out of her head from medication late in life, she mourned him. The loss never left her.

After my grandfather died, when my grandmother was heading into her forties, she found herself independent for the first time in her life. She went wild. Eventually she fell in love with the grandfather I knew -- Hiram Lane, a double amputee from World War II -- a character in his own right. They had many great years together -- her poodles, his handguns, Ancient Age, fine Southern food. In the pictures from this time, you'll see the two of them singing to each other, shot after shot. He passed away when I was eighteen.

My grandmother had a wonderful companion, Howard, whom she'd known all her life, and he was there with her until the end. She was terrified of dying, but I can't even begin to describe the grace of her ending.

By God, she lit up every room she walked into. Her soul could not be contained.


[The photos that follow aren't in chronological order. But here's a glimpse -- the tiniest window -- into a brilliantly lived life.]


This is her father, Henry, beloved in the family
though not one to hold a job long.
He took the fall for my grandfather
and did 18 months in jail.






















My grandmother and her second husband.
Pool-side in her 40s.

My mother's first husband, my biological
grandfather, Glenn, on the left (cigarette)
and my grandmother's half-brother,
Lee Irving, on the right.
My mother as a little kid
with her mother (on left, hand dainty)
and aunt at the beach.
Mildred and Hiram.
A dreamy shot that would have
been a good album cover in its day
taken by Hiram.

This is Ella, her mother, as a young woman,
wearing a paper dress
she made herself.
My grandmother on the right,
in the white headband.
She's so young but this is likely
shortly before she was
to be married.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

"Memory is a net."

According to the plane ticket wedged in the book, I was flying from Fort Worth to Hartford when I came across this, "Around 1960, a young psychologist named Sarnoff Mednick thought he had identified the essence of creativity. His idea was as simple as it was powerful: creativity is associative memory that works exceptionally well." 

I shut the book. The lines struck me as immediately true and absolutely how my creative process conducts itself and how I operate in the world. It lines up with my lectures on craft and the way I structure my creative writing workshops -- which begin with heavy memory exercises to build texture -- and my reliance on the quote "Memory is a net." (Olive Wendell Holmes) This quote goes on: "one that finds it full of fish when he takes it from the brook, but a dozen miles of water have run through it without sticking." Those fish, though, they are the things your brain has kept -- sometimes beyond reason or rationality -- but, in their essences, those memories are kept because of psychological resonance and they often have some sensual grip. They're ours. They shimmer and gasp in our hands.
 

This associative memory isn't like other kinds of memory skills -- the memory for trivia, for formulas, for collected data that needs to be applied. No. This associative memory is the reason why, when you're in a room of writers, you can shout out any word and ask for a story. Shout out, "Doorknob!" and a room of writers will start sorting through all their best doorknob stories -- places they were locked into and out of, the first one they saw made of crystal that reminds them of their first understanding of wealth or want. 

(The book is Thinking Fast and Slow.)

Friday, August 30, 2013

Why THE PARIS REVIEW's fashion article made me nauseous.

The piece starts like this, "In New York City's esteemed literary world, there are parties, and then there are The Paris Review parties..."

If you didn't read that in a slightly drunken slurry British accent -- or pick your Capote or a little Tsa Tsa Gabor -- you've done it wrong. Go back and start over.

The piece appears here at Refinery29.com and goes on to offer a slideshow of the various editors and interns (and one box of high heels) talking about their taste in fashion and sometimes literature within the gorgeous digs of The Paris Review now lodged in a loft space in New York City, in Chelsea to be exact. 

Reading it, I felt a little nauseous and yet riveted. It was like finding out that there's still an airline -- a secret, hidden, desperately expensive airline -- that still makes their stewardesses weigh in and has a uniform of pink twill suits with matching berets.

And on this airline, which you'll never see with your own eyes, they serve cocktails and prawns. 

On the one hand, I felt sorry for some of the editors. One, in particular, seemed to say (without saying it), I hate this. I'm in hell. Can't you see the fear I'm telegraphing to you via my pained language?

Others seemed to take it in stride. Maybe they even enjoyed it a little. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't look lovingly at the slide that focused on the box of heels. I did.

And it's fine to have a hip literary magazine with an incredible pedigree featured in a fashion magazine. It's good for those who wouldn't normally think of poetry and fiction and lit-rah-cha in their day-to-day and see it dressed in a leather mini-skirt with over-the-knee socks. Right? Right.

But the problem is that the piece actually zipped around to poets and writers. And in this crowd -- especially the younger poets and writers -- it's hard to take and I fear it sends the wrong message.

It seems to say there's an It-Crowd in literature and you're either in or your not and your career hinges on this invite and, moreover, your fashion sense is crucial.

Listen. Line up the biggest award winners and bestsellers and critical favorites from the last ten years. You're not going to get many fashion tips. Trust me.

If there is a literary It-Crowd, they don't matter as much as those who write brilliantly regardless of where they live and what parties they attend and what heels their donning.

Personally, I couldn't be an artist in New York City. I spent a good bit of time there as a kid and interned there at 19 and, even then, I knew that it crashed my circuits -- too much to process and I'm a processor.

I've been to a few parties of the literary variety, and I prefer parties of the non-literary variety, frankly. I prefer being around people who do something different from what I do -- give me a guy who researches monogamous prairie voles or an artist who's making a bust of her mother from dead cell phones or a guy who just inherited the family farm but isn't a farmer or a bartender or a woman who does the hair for the deceased at a funeral parlor. Give me your bawdy librarian! Give me the guy who raises falcons! Give me a league of dart players!

Now -- most importantly -- let me tell you what I'm wearing. 

I'm barefoot. I'm wearing a longish sweater adorned with dollops of wispy dog fur -- collie to be exact. Under that, I have on one of my husband's soccer-coach shirts -- given free with the entry into a soccer tournament for 12 year old boys. Youthful, yes, but not overstated. My yoga pants, which my oldest daughter has dubbed "my generation's equivalent of the muumuu" are inside out. Seams chafe me. In fact, I come from a long hereditary line of those chafed by seams. 

Could you say this is also how my literary tastes run? [Insert gentle laughter.] Well, of course.  


Now, wherever you are, go write your ass off.         

Monday, August 26, 2013

Why Miley Cyrus is a Tragedy We All Must Bear

Miley Cyrus may well be a very nice person with some fine traits. She might be a loyal friend, generous, and caring. She might be sensitive. She might struggle with deep fears, insecurities, and a desire for intimate, plain-old love.

In other words, she's human.

The problem is that she's now twenty and therefore complicit in her own exploitation. Now that I'm in my forties, I think of twenty as extremely young. And how can you be truly complicit if all you've ever really known is your own exploitation?

The music industry produces some real talent, those who bully up from the ranks, and make it against incredible odds. Miley isn't one them. She's fine at what she does, but it's hard to watch her dance. Those with better ears for voice than I have are pretty clear on the limits of her singing. And now her job is to shock.

But she's no Madonna. When Madonna's first big hit came out, she was twenty-five, but seemed older. She quickly proved that she had things to say. She didn't have a large world view growing up in Michigan, but she had a deeply American one, a feminist one that allowed her to see boundaries and to break them. Also, she understood irony, and she had a longing, a sadness, some depth.

Miley isn't going for Madonna. The people who handle her image are clearly struggling to brand her as close to Pink as possible -- hair, make-up, and clothing. The rip-off is sometimes stunning.

But she's not Pink either who, for all of her toughness, is actually really soulful, smart, and funny. It also feels like Pink has earned her toughness from an authentically hard childhood. Pink's self-awareness and insights have gotten really interesting over the years.

The major problem with child-stars is that they didn't have foundational years where there was no stardom, knowing that those who loved them loved them for who they are. Even when stars are loved for who they are, it has to be cast over with doubt because their stardom exists.

Without the underpinnings of having been loved for who you are, your value in the world is unclear. Is your willingness to exploit yourself what you have to give others?

And without a worldview from the ground up, how do you understand boundaries that ordinary people feel, how do you speak for us, to us -- through music? Without some seeming self-awareness, some ironic eye cast on your own celebrity, the performances feel like they're born from a desire simply to please -- even the shocks are meant to fit in... The like-me, like-me factor is painful.

What we get is a disastrous melange of cheesy images, artlessness, and terrifying exploitation.

Less abstractly, what we got was a twenty year old girl bending over in front of a much older man, wagging her butt in his crotch with her tongue out while dancing to the funky rape song of the summer. 

And we all know what's coming. It has all the markings of a storyline playing out like most of the other child-star storylines. Eventually we'll grow tired of the show. The attempts to get our attention will get wilder and messier. Miley could become a parody of herself. Robbed of her anonymity, this descent would be public even when she would want it to be very, very private. There may well be partying, drugs, overdoses, orange jumpsuits, a hotel room where things go very wrong...

Is there anyway to stop it? This is what I thought of the first time I saw her "We Can't Stop" video, which now has over 157 million views. Despite the fact that it's supposed to be a party song, it's played in a melancholy minor key. The beat is slow. Stripped from its video, it's a sad song that seems, if anything, to be about addiction... to what? Hers or, culturally, ours?

We can't stop it, but we have to fear how it will end.

Friday, August 16, 2013

1/2 Dozen with Aaron Becker

Welcome to the world of debut author-illustrator Aaron Becker. His recently released picture book JOURNEY is getting rave reviews, including a glowing write-up in The New York Times. Becker has worked for Lucasfilm, Disney, and many other production studios on films such as The Polar Express, Monster House, War of the Worlds, and Beowulf

Read the interview below, buy the book for a kid you love, and check out his web site -- StoryBreathing.com -- for some delights.  


What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 
The inner imaginings of my childhood were far more compelling to me than anything I found on the outside. The adult world seemed like something to actively avoid, but the inevitable was always lurking around the corner. I vividly remember the moment when I became self conscious of my imagination; standing in my room realizing I was talking out loud to my toys. I tried to keep going with the storyline but it felt silly: I knew how things would end, so what was the point?!! I’ve been hungry ever since to reconnect with that unaffected place where it’s worth the time to daydream. To capture enchantment and put it on the page. 

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.  
Before you write, examine why it is you’re attracted to the idea that’s grabbed you. Explore this until you grow uncomfortable. From there, find what needs to open within you and, with empathy, create the character that needs your attention and love. Or, alternatively, realize all of this in hind-site after you've suffered through the process of writing something meaningful and realize why it worked.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.  
I’m in my tenth month of writing a 40 page picture book for children. The first or second draft would have sufficed, but it would have been a lousy book. I keep coming up with story lines, switching formats, refining text, and then canning the entire thing only to start again. I believe I am on my fifth overall concept, each with countless drafts, some with entirely fleshed out sketches and drawings that take weeks of full-time work. Is this sane? Probably not. But I do believe it’s going to lead me somewhere good. It’s this delusion that keeps me going, and it seems to do the trick. 

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life? 
Yes, but only because I’ve made a conscious decision to be a husband and father first. The taxing nature of this type of work requires that there are people around you who love and support you. The only way I’ve found to ensure that this happens is to be a decent person myself.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer? 
For about ten years, I worked as a concept designer for the film industry. Though you’d think this would have taught me a lot about story telling, it actually has sort of worked the other way around. The best children’s books don’t follow the strong morality tales of cinema; a picture book allows for a more nuanced, ambivalent tone.  It's what I love about the genre.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?  
Place comes first for me. As a painter, I’m drawn to landscapes. I’m ungrounded unless I know the space I’m inhabiting. Journey started out this way, as a series of exotic locales. Slowly, the hero girl made her way into the story. And eventually she encouraged me to see the benefit of having more going on than just the pretty pictures. I'm glad she did.


Born in Baltimore, Aaron Becker moved to California to attend Pomona College where he scored his first illustration job designing t-shirts for his water polo team. Since then, he's worked for Lucasfilm, Disney, and many other production studios on films such as The Polar Express, Monster House, War of the Worlds, and Beowulf; he's traveled to Kenya, Japan, Sweden, and Tahiti backpacking around while looking for good things to eat and feeding his imagination. He now lives with his family in Amherst, MA where he's busy at work on his next book project. 

 You can find out more about what he's been up to lately at storybreathing.com.

1/2 Dozen with James Ladd Thomas

James Ladd Thomas is the second self-published novelist I've interviewed here.  He is candid about his process, the long haul of his writing over the years, and his choice to self-publish his debut novel, Ardor

Here goes:

You're not new to writing. Tell us about your training as a writer -- including how you first came to it.

I’ve always been a reader, as a kid through high school reading about sports because I was a jock, Sports Illustrated, books about athletes, Jerry Kramer, Bart Starr, Joe Namath; but I never considered writing fiction until my early twenties. I earned a Marketing degree from the University of Alabama in 1981 then began a short career working for defense contractors, landed a job in ‘84 with General Dynamics in San Diego, was extremely bored, which was when I began to read lots of literature. A few works flipped the switch for me: Huck FinnBreakfast of Champions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The World According to Garp. In ’85 my wife and I moved back across the country to attend Auburn University. Auburn doesn’t have much of a creative writing program, but I did take a few fiction workshops with Madison Jones and Ely Welt. For a grad class I interviewed Mary Ward Brown; I just learned that she passed away a few weeks ago. What a wonderful writer and a lovely soul, nothing but gracious. Many think of her as our Chekov. I wanted to meet her and just talk about writing, her writing life, typical writing day, her path to becoming a writer, which was fascinating. She explained how she wrote early in her life then began running her family's farm with her husband and raising her son. She found she couldn't do both, so she just stopped writing for a few years. Then her husband died and she began writing again, more so as her son matured. That was the first time I spent time with a writer; she was in Auburn for a literary conference so I interviewed her on three or four different occasions. Looking back I’m sure those few hours I spent with her helped fuel my desire to write. I wrote fiction all the time while at Auburn but never submitted any fiction for publication; in writing years I was a baby learning to crawl. I began a novel in ’89, earned an MA in English in ‘90, tried to find an agent and publication for the novel in the early 90s, a few showed interest but no offers. A fun book to write, very Southern gonzo, or Grit Lit, as that anthology that was recently published explained the genre. A much needed Southern anthology edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin, which included such Southern writers as Barry Hannah, Lewis Nordan, Harry Crews, Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown. Switched over to writing short stories during the mid-90’s, wrote dozens of pretty bad stories and collected an astonishing amount of rejections, so many, hundreds, taking those punches is good medicine, which is when I learned that rejection is just part of being a writer. Submitting was all by mail, copying the stories, writing the cover letters, logging in the submissions, waiting weeks to several months before you would hear anything, some a year or more, some never responding. A grueling process, just sucks the life right out of you. A few years of writing stories and receiving nothing but rejections will test your desire to publish. Rejection was a way of life then, which is in direct contrast to today where finding publication is much easier with all the online opportunities. Thankfully the online mags have finally shaken their ugly stepchild persona, really good work out there, work we probably wouldn’t have seen without this wave of new opportunities. A benefit of the old system was that you grew some thick skin. I published my first story around ’98, meaning thirteen years after I began seriously writing fiction I published my first story. During the next three years I published over a dozen stories, one nominated for a Pushcart, and almost all were published after having been rejected dozens of times, just kept revising them, working them. In 2000 I attended Bread Loaf  and worked with Barry Lopez who was very supportive of my work and still is, we keep in contact. Lopez advised me to write another novel, which I began that fall. I attended Bread Loaf again in 2003, worked with Thomas Mallon who pushed my work at that conference, very supportive and encouraging. Finished the novel and attended Sewanee in 2004 where I worked with Richard Bausch and Jill McCorkle, both very supportive. Attended Southampton Writers' Conference in '05 where I worked with Melissa Bank, another wonderful workshop experience. And there’s no denying encouragement helps in one’s development as a writer, in anything really. I doggedly pursued publication for that novel, really hard for a couple of years, again interest but no takers. I spent the next few years writing another novel, Ardor, finishing in 2012, a small press almost took it, but after that fell through I decided to publish it myself. All this sounds rather depressing, all these rejections, but when you talk to other writers my journey is not that different from most.  


 Talk to us about the decision to self-publish.

I queried lots and lots (and lots) of agents and small publishers through the first 15 years or so of my writing life, knocked on many doors trying to find print through the standard publishing vents, especially in my thirties, early forties, but after I published several of my stories I no longer felt this great urge to chase publication. Not that I didn't want to publish through the standard system, I never stopped sending work out, but at some point I stepped back from exerting so much energy in chasing those traditional outlets. I began to realize I was at the mercy of very few people, the agents and editors. I don't mean to disparage these people, most love the written word, do their jobs with a passion to promote good work, but they are swamped with manuscripts, hundreds a month. The bottom line is that a tiny percentage of the thousands being submitted are chosen to be published. Once you digest and understand this then you realize that it's the work that matters, certainly more than pursuing publication. And honestly, I was tired of chasing publication. I was worn out, done, toast. I've made my living the past 23 years by teaching at Valencia College in Orlando where the standard teaching load is 12 classes for the year, 14 with an overload, mostly Comp classes. Finding time to write within this workload requires a bit of dedication. When I'm writing, and I've done this my entire teaching career, I rise at 4 a.m. to work on my fiction for a couple of hours; and if I'm lucky I try to squeeze in another hour or two before the end of the day. Fighting for writing time day after week after year in addition to the arduous task of pursuing publication, plus the teaching load, plus family time, all of this just wrings you out. So I decided to peel back on the amount of time spent pursuing publication. About a year ago a colleague, John Calvin Hughes, and I started kicking around the idea of using print on demand for our books. The more we read about it the more we liked the idea. He took the plunge first with his novel Twilight of the Lesser Gods. The entire experience has been wonderful; I controlled everything. I think this is the future of publishing. The percentages are much higher than the standard publishing contract. I believe eventually most books will take this route. I know right now that many people still believe that POD is vanity publishing, that you are not REALLY publishing. That’s so funny to me because it doesn’t make any sense. A book is terrible because it was published through POD? That’s like saying an independent filmmaker shouldn’t be taken seriously.

 What was the process like? In what ways has it most surprised you?

 A very interesting experience, since you control every aspect of the process and you have to do all the work. From what I understand that’s not too different from what most writers receive in traditional publishing these days. I even like the idea that everything is on your shoulders: the cover, editing, the text, a website, publicity. I suppose the other side of that is everything is on your shoulders. You have control but you must do it all. I liked designing my book, the cover, the set-up, my website. The one area where I think I need help is publicity, someone who can help you reach the reader. You can hire editors, designers, publicists, but that’s a hurdle if money is tight for you.

Also, I certainly understand people’s concerns that the technology of self-publishing is diluting the quality of the published word. Over 200,000 books were self-published in 2011. That's wonderful. And you hear again and again that lots of those works are rather poor in quality. The argument is that traditional publishing with it agents and editors separates the wheat from the chaff. I don’t really buy that line. I’d guess that most of what is published through traditional publishers is pretty good work, but there is also some POD works which are good. Some people are lucky, are given an opportunity, are championed by the right people. I read a book the other day that was hit and miss, some really strong pieces and some mediocre pieces. The book had wonderful blurbs, reviews in The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker, big ads in magazines, everything in the traditional publishing world going for it. Good for that writer, but what about all those other good writers who haven’t been lucky, haven’t been given the opportunity. They are publishing now. No more luck, no more waiting for the opportunity. What self-publishing needs is a better way to recognize the quality, a hub that gathers reviews, maybe a publishing Rotten Tomatoes. Also, and I think this is an important point, most people are not striving to be the next great novelist; they’re just trying to tell a story the best way they can. There are all kinds of reasons why people publish: for family and friends, for one’s self, to reach readers, to express ideas, learn the craft. All those self-published books are wonderful for literature and writing. Writers complaining about people writing and publishing is like bands complaining about the growth of bands. It reeks of jealousy, which reveals the insecurity of all these whiners. So what if lots of self-published work is rather mediocre; lots of people writing their stories and expressing their views means literature is thriving. And publishing your work as you develop your craft is better than working on a novel for years only to be rejected again and again by agents and editors, the work never seeing the light of day. Do you benefit more from rejection letters that tell you nothing about your work or from actual readers who tell you what they think about your writing? I think I would have benefited more from readers’ appraisal of my first two novels than from vanilla rejections from agents and publishers. Another benefit of having so much available is that we have so much more to choose from, all types of different styles. Look at what has happened to music, hybrids of hybrids of hybrids. I find it reprehensible that the indie book author is held in contempt while the indie band or the indie filmmaker is revered. The explosion in publishing is opening the door to experimentation not only in writing styles, types of fiction, but in how it is delivered. Paper version of books is, of course, not disappearing, there will always be people wanting their physical books, wanting to touch and smell that paper, but now with e-books we have a new format to deliver the words, more cheaply, or should be; and people are using all sorts of new technology with the electronic format, music, interactive technology, even combining paper and electronic platforms. I don't see it as the death of the published word; it's a rebirth, a new design, a metamorphosis. The words will be judged no matter the format. I think that's exciting, refreshing. And that's another backlash against self-publishing, against the open door to experimentation, literature is changing. How can you compare Huck Finn with an e-book that will play music, change pictures as you hover over pages? One of the main reasons for this uproar over self-publishing is that we are just now changing the technology for the written word, which has used the printing press for hundreds of years. I hated CDs when they first entered the scene. I was working at a record store while in school at Auburn University during the mid-80s when CDs hit, and I was like, "no, no, no." I loved the album art, the size of the album, the liner notes. Buying an album, putting it on the turntable while you studied the album itself was a beautiful ritual I didn't want to let go of. And I held out for a long time but eventually gave in. Now I don't even buy CDs. Sometimes I'll buy an entire album's worth of music, sometimes I just buy songs. But I do buy them. Why can’t we buy stories separately from the entire collection? 

Tell us a little about your novel.

Ardor is about a young woman in her late teens and early twenties living in north Alabama, which is where I grew up. She is very smart, experimenting a little with college classes, idealistic but naïve, giving but self-centered. She is a feminist without studying feminism. She’s a liberal, a progressive living in the Deep South. The entire novel is told in first person, from Ardor’s point of view, which was a little tricky for me. I enlisted a few young women to read Ardor and give me feedback; their feedback helped tremendously in trying to create an authentic voice. The story is about Ardor’s life, her world, the way she perceives the world, so I think the first person point of view fits the story. The novel is not driven by a traditional plot, but rather a collection of vignettes concerning Ardor’s experiences during this time in her life. She has many lovers, has an affair with a married man, with a lesbian in a committed relationship, a few people she dearly loves die, and there’s the Southern culture which constantly causes conflict and tension. Ardor is raw, loving, devoted, self-righteous, a strong and damaged young woman who is doing her best.

 
I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Wasn’t it Faulkner who said the only inspiration he knew about was putting the seat of his pants in the seat of a chair? Honestly, I don’t understand the idea of inspiration when talking about writing. I suppose you can read something that inspires you to want to try it, much like watching someone play a sport so well that you want to try it yourself. I’m sure lots of people have tried golf because of Tiger Woods. I played lots of basketball as a kid, and what inspired me to play was watching Bill Walton play ball at UCLA, Havlicek and Cowens play with the Celtics. For me there’s always a seed of something to inspire me to sit down and write, a character or a bit of dialog, but once I begin then the work takes over. I take my hands off the wheel and let her go where she’ll go. At the creation stage you have to let the work surprise you, don’t try to overpower the narrative, have a willingness to let the story take charge. Perhaps my idea of inspiration for writing fiction is when the work begins to jell, when the ideas and issues in the work begin to connect, to bubble up then I feel like “Yeah, okay, now we’re cooking, the fog is burning off.” However, that can happen rather deep in the writing of the work. I think if I waited to be inspired to sit down and begin a work then I would hardly write anything. In a sense, the love of the work is the inspiration. I think about those incredible paintings they found in southern France in ’94. You look at them, these beautiful pieces of art that were created about 35,000 years ago and wonder what inspired these artists? They are expressing something within themselves, something that made them want to paint these animals, which had nothing to do with becoming famous, making money, being a great artist. What inspired those artists are the same things which inspire us today. One creates because there is something you want to tell and show other people. Richard Bausch always says we have more in common with the cave than the drawing room.  

 Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

The dirty truth of writing is that it’s hard as hell work. It’s frustrating, aggravating, glacially slow, so to really invest yourself in this process you have to love it. But I don’t think writing is a choice, like when someone chooses to be an accountant or a lawyer. On one level, everything is a choice, and I’m sure some people consider career options and finally decide, “Yes, I’ll be a writer, go to school, earn an MFA, teach creative writing for money, and publish my work.” My god, that sounds awful. I’m sure some people think I’m romanticizing writing when I say this, but like any art, the art finds you. Writing will find you, something you read, a click in your brain, you try it then BOOM, you want to write and you can’t get enough of it. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, Irving’s Garp, and even reading Charles Baxter’s short story “Gryphon” set me on fire. I still read work that sets me on fire, even in my students’ work, a story, a character, a scene, a sentence, a word. I’ve heard some people say that you are not truly a writer unless you publish. That’s absurd, elitist, and so ostracizing. No, if you publish then you’re a published writer. And I think some people write even though they’ve grown tired of it; they’ve created a career so they feel like they can’t stop, a monetary obligation, a career obligation. Writers have varying levels of publishing success, but a writer is someone who loves to write. Pure and simple. If writing is a chore without any joy then you probably need to find something else to do. Two of the best pieces of advice I received about writing were from Thomas Mallon and Bob Shacochis. Mallon told me at Bread Loaf in 2003 that if you think at some point you become so good at writing that everything you write will be wonderful and everything you submit will be published then you’re believing in a fairytale. Every time you sit down to write it’s a struggle. And you will never, ever stop being rejected. A writer lives with rejection and failure, and the successes are these small slivers in the continuous line of failure and rejection. Shacochis told me once after a reading that the difference between him and the people whom he attended Iowa with is that many of his classmates stopped writing (chose different paths, got married and had kids, found jobs doing other things, found different passions) while he kept at it because he didn’t want to stop. The only reason I write is because I love it; writing makes me feel good about my life, about the world. If I ever lose the joy then I’ll stop. Alice Munro just made the statement that she is done, finished, because at this point in her life she doesn’t want to do what must be done in order to write. Exactly. Sometimes students ask me if they should keep writing, even if they think they are not any good. I always tell them they should keep writing if they love to write. If you keep working at it, you’ll get better, and better, and better. I’ve had some incredibly good fiction writers in my classes who just didn’t have a passion for it, so they quit writing. What else could they do? And I’ve had some rather mediocre writers at the time of the class never stop writing, are still writing today because they love it, can’t live without writing, and they continue to improve. That’s a writer. If you find peace with working on a story, a novel, a poem then you are a writer. Don't worry about publication, what people will say, your subject matter, the genre, worry about the work, the language, the word, the sentence, the essence of the work. Everything else will take care of itself.

James Ladd Thomas was born and raised in Alabama, taking residence in Dothan, Prattville, Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, and Auburn, earning degrees at the University of Alabama and Auburn University. He has published short stories in several journals, including Berkeley Fiction ReviewHawaii ReviewRE:AL, and Southern Exposure. A Pushcart and Best New Voices in America nominee, he has attended Bread Loaf, Sewanee, and Southampton writers’ conferences. He currently teaches composition and fiction writing at Valencia College in Orlando. He lives in Sanford with his wife and two children. Ardor is his first novel.
 

Monday, August 5, 2013

My Commencement Speech for Florida State University 2013 -- Excerpts, Bits, and Quotations

Below is a recap of my commencement speech for FSU's class of 2013 where I stitch the speech together and give some pull-quotes. The speech started with a page of somewhat comedic background on my life and education and then the next two pages flip that background into more universal lessons.

I started with, "... I have to say that, I’m pretty sure that my invitation to speak today is part of an embarrassing clerical error, like instead of Baggott, someone actually requested famous Italian musician and composer Baglioni. Kindly, they didn’t yank the offer."  

But later in the speech, I circled back to this with a comment specifically for the women in the audience. "At the start of this speech, I said I was likely here due to a clerical error. It was a joke, but one that stems from outdated baggage. Be the generation of women leaders who shrug off this antiquated self-deprecation. Don’t make light of your accomplishments. You’ve earned what you’ve gotten. Take credit where credit is due without apology or excuse."

Early on, I said, "I lacked the early earmarks of success. For example, when the gifted and talented teacher walked into my classroom telling the gifted and talented students to collect their things for gifted and talented class, I didn’t have to collect anything. I could stay put. I was good at something. During the Presidential fitness test, I could hang onto the chin-up bar for so long the other kids got bored and walked away." 

Later, I explained the three myths that, to my mind, are the most destructive to American innovation. "Our culture is deeply invested in the concepts of inspiration, luck, and innate talent. These three concepts have one thing in common: they require no work, which is why they’re enticing. No matter how hard you beat these ideas down to replace them with hours of work – on ball fields, at piano keys, in library stacks, and labs – you cannot shake them, culturally.
"But if you want to succeed, you have to shake them personally. Otherwise, they will do you in."

I broke down each of the three myths and summed with this, "Choose the hours. Better yet, choose a field that consumes you so wholly that hours don’t feel like hours passing at all. In the end, it’s better to think of yourself as ungifted and not talented, but good at hanging onto a chin-up bar for a ridiculously long period of time. The ability to hang on is hugely undervalued." 

I talked about my two strongest desires to write and have kids. After graduate school, "I still never thought I’d have a career, when the #1 adjective used to describe your chosen field is the word 'starving,' a reasonable person must consider this. But I wanted two things – to write and have kids. I had my first child when I was 25, another at 27, another at 30, and, after a suspicious seven year gap, one more baby at age 37."

I followed it up with advice on living a resentment-free life. "I understood that if I sacrificed having children for my career, I’d resent my writing. If I gave up writing to have kids, I’d resent my kids. Those were my issues, yours will be your own. But this should still stand – Living a resentment-free life requires awareness of what you might regret. Be vigilant for the onset of resentment and create a life that defies it."

I talked about money. "Our first two children were born under the poverty level. We aspired to the poverty level. We looked at it and said, One day, poverty-level, we will meet. We ran a boarding house for foreign students out of a three-bedroom condo, telling Koreans and Brazilians that fish sticks were fine American cuisine."

I circled back to it this way, ".. my husband and I were willing to sacrifice things like a new Ikea couch, basic privacy and, well, a little dignity for our more lasting goals… a wise choice.
"Falling for the trappings of grown-upedness and success – the right car, clothes, well-appointed home -- will bury your dreams faster than anything else.
"If your dream is the right car, clothes, and well-appointed house, aspire to more. You’re better than that."
Just in case that wasn't clear enough, I also added later still, this warning, "If your success is a greedy, narrow minded, bigoted, petty, insular, judgmental, self-righteous, materialistic success then you have not actually succeeded because you have not helped further humanity.

"Don't be a wealthy failure." 

And on failure alone, I wrote, "I’m here because of my so-called successes, but my failures are far more important. I can say I’ve been published by most of the major publishing houses in New York, but I don’t usually mention I’ve also been rejected by all of them. Here’s the thing: If you’re not willing to risk failure, you’re really only committing to safe, easy goals. This is where storytellers have an advantage. We understand failure as just a narrative plot point. When you're failing, it feels like the end of the story, but it's not. When you fail in your career, it's just part of a larger, more interesting story. The same goes love..."

As each commencement speech is allowed one quote from someone else, I quoted Nick Krieger, the author of the memoir Nina Here Nor There, which recounts his transition from female to male, a quote I keep taped to the wall in my office.“I wish someone had told me, not that my life would be hard, but that it would be phenomenally rich. I wish someone had told me that through my own self-inquiry and my own unique experience, my empathy would deepen, my compassion would expand, my gratitude for being alive would be huge.”
Obviously a transgender person’s quest for authenticity is incredibly brave in our society. But I keep that quote present because we all should strive to know who we are in this world.
"Success without self inquiry, without seeking your own unique experience, without empathy, compassion and gratitude is empty." 


Of course, I also told them, "No matter what path you take, your life is going to offer you chances to stand up and do the right thing – in big ways and in small daily ways. Stand up -- for someone else, not just your own interests. Do the right thing."

And I ended this way, "I wish you inspiration, hopes for your innate talent, and good luck – but only as a return on the investment of your hard work. And I wish you hours and days and years of doing something that engages you. I wish you failure -- to learn from -- as well as self-inquiry, a unique experience in the world, empathy, compassion, and gratitude.

"And my wish, for the world, is that each of you goes forth and furthers humanity."



[The full story at FSU.edu. The link to my final wish is here -- go to the 1:40 mark or so. And my apologies for the font issues above. Formatting was tricky.]

 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why E-Books Feel Like the Lesser Technology. A Short Rant.

I've been told that e-books are going to dominate the future and I get it. I do. By that I mean I try to get it, but I don't.

There are a few problems with my brain that make the glue-and-binding book such a better technology than the e-book. This has mostly to do with me as a sensory being. My brain has been wired to remember by weight and balance of pages, by left or right page, how a book progresses. In other words, I've learned to read physically, not just mentally. And if you asked me at this moment, where a scene happened in a book that I was holding in my hands and had read in book form, I'd be able to find it. A good phrase is one I see in my head -- three-quarters through, left side, second paragraph or so. Book reading is kinetic and sensory for me. The book burrows into my hands as well as my head.

I also write all over books that I love. I have marginal conversations with the authors, underline, write full sections of novels of my own that are in progress jotted in the white pages in the back.  Of course, my brain can really hold onto a note scrawled in my own hand. There's no competing with the individuality that a book takes on once it's been fully marked up.

But, but, but ... the e-book has the little % bar at the bottom. My brain should be able to switch to that, right? And I've been told that the highlighting functions are excellent. And, to be fair, the search function on an e-book is the one place where they trump paper books. These are things that a child raised on e-books can surely rewire for, synaptic-firing-wise, and come to prefer. Oh, and for the person who doesn't want to pack 10 books for vacation, but can't make the tough call on which to bring, the e-reader wins.




But there's one thing that an e-book doesn't do well and never will.

Linger, laze about, be left behind. It doesn't end up where it wasn't meant to be very well. It isn't good at being a physical object.

The e-book strikes me as the idea of food instead of, say, an actual peach.

This realization seems very important this time of year. Summer is when I sometimes linger, laze and get left behind myself. I'm very good at being a physical object.

And I think of all the wonderful and weird books that I found because they were just simply there -- tattered and worn and simply being. Many of these books were vacation books. And I've left behind many books as well -- turning them over to the universe.

And as someone who's organized many, many book drives, I see that tradition of passing a book along slipping away.  

I uploaded a book that I'm dying to read onto my Kindle -- it was a special e-book deal. I haven't read the book. It's been about six months.

The e-book gets trumped by all the physical object books that are stacked on my bedside table. 

If that e-book were in my house, lingering, lazing, and simply being, I'd have read it by now. It's likely a kid of mine would have picked it up too and sauntered off with it.

The little black book of Kindle just doesn't draw me in. I look at it. It looks at me. We should be inseparable. But it's flat. It's always the same. It deadens the tactile experience that I have with each individual book I read. I can't dog-ear it. I can't throw it across a room. I can't hand a book on it off to a friend. I can't write my ideas into its margins.

And therefore it's less of an experience -- for my senses, for my soul.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

My Convocation Speech to Florida State University Freshman



[I've been asked to speak at FSU graduation in the coming weeks. This made me go back through my files to look for the Convocation Speech I gave a few years ago. Here it is, for what it's worth. It's got a welcoming feel to it, whereas the graduation speech will have a much rougher welcome-to-the-world feel to it. 
Note: I was asked to tie in the freshman-wide read NEVER LET ME GO by
Kazuo Ishiguro, hence the reference.


When I was asked to speak to you all today, I decided that I didn’t want to give a speechy speech – one with bullet-points of chicken soupy advice or stern warnings or ebullient optimism. I didn’t want to have bullet points at all, in fact. But, still, while jotting notes, I found myself coming up with speechy kinds of things that I wanted to say to you. And so I feel it’s only fair to warn you that this speech does contain speechy moments – in fact, I’ve shoved five “Tips” into this speech. And I apologize, in advance, for the moments of  speechiness. It turns out that speechiness is hard to avoid in speeches. Blame it on the genre. Speeches are speechy no matter how you try to disguise them. (And, no, speechy is not really a word. But as a professor at Florida State University’s Top-Ranked Creative Writing Program, I’m actually allowed to invent words as I see fit. It’s one of the perks.)

And now I’ll begin with a little story:

When I was a freshman, I had a professor who strode into the classroom the first day and, without any introduction, said to the class, “Raise your hand if you think your life has plot.”

I raised my hand. I was, in fact, the only person to raise a hand. Well, a lacrosse player in the back raised his but then looked around the room saw that it was only the two of us and lowered it.

I kept my hand in the air.

The professor turned to me then and said, in a very grave voice, “You’re wrong. Literature has plot. Your life doesn’t.”

In this moment, I started a lifelong argument with this professor. He doesn’t know that we’ve been arguing for almost two decades, of course, because the argument has been going on inside the confines of my own head. (Which brings me to Tip #1: At FSU, you’re going to disagree with people – on ideas, ethics, theories, ways of seeing the world. These arguments are gifts. They will transform you and others. Sometimes you have to define who you are and how you see the world in contrast to how other people see the world. Be open to how other people see the world. But hope, too that these arguments take root inside of you and last a lifetime.)

This professor may have had a grand sweeping point to make about the art of crafting great literature. And, on some level, we might agree on this. Writing in a diary, for example, doesn’t constitute creating plot. It’s a series of anecdotes. But I believe that if you look closely at your life – especially if you’re reflecting back on pivotal moments – you will start to see patterns, the accumulation of small decisions that lead to bigger decisions, you’ll start to see the larger narrative arc of your life. (Tip #2: Reflect on your life. It’s the best way to learn from your mistakes. If you don’t, you risk living a life of little circles – like a hamster stuck on an exercise wheel in a habitrail.)

One of the most interesting things about this very moment of your life – this very moment -- is that over course of the next few days and weeks, you’ll find yourself talking to a lot of people you’ve never met before. They’ll ask questions and you’ll answer them. And, for most of you, it will be the very first time that you’ve been able to tell your own version of the story of your life. The first time you’ve been able to tell it the way you’ve really seen it – without being interrupted by a brother or a sister who want to give their version of things, without your mother saying You can’t possibly remember that!, without having to spin the story this way or that way for the sake of an audience who’s known you for a very long time.

And, while you’re answering questions, you’ll see the story of your own life emerge in a way that it never has before. Talking to people who’ve never been to your hometown, who didn’t know you in high school, who’ve never met your parents – for better or for worse -- you’ll find yourself saying things that you never realized before. A new kind of truth will rise up, and, over the course of your life, it will be edited and embellished, there will be public versions and private versions – the ones you only share with those you really trust. And there will likely be a version that you alone know – one that’s barely expressible, that exists only when you’re truly alone. (Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to be truly alone. In this techno-crazed world, I worry that being alone might become extinct – as students can be in touch with so many people at all times. Some of your best thoughts will come to you when you’re alone, mulling. Work on the art of solitary mulling.)

The creation of the story of your own life is important. It’s essential, in fact. But it’s not the point of my speech today.

I want to talk about how, as your own story is taking shape, you have to also look outward.

This brings me to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, which was on all of your summer reading lists … and which all of you have read? (This is the way I gaze upon a group of students with a professorial eyebrow arched.)

Ishiguro’s work often orbits around issues of class and hierarchy. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy and Tommy realize that, as clones, the greater world sees them as less than human. In fact, they deny the existence of their souls. Why? Because it’s easier to see them as clones than as human beings.

This is true, in a way, for all of us. We have learned to look past people – the person who works at the bookstore or the hot dog hut; our fellow students who rush by us in great herds; administrators bustling by with briefcases; even those athletes we adore, but often see as players on the field instead of people.

To get through our days – efficiently – we’ve learned to deny the full humanity of those around us, their souls, as Ishiguro puts it. Instead we see people as clichés, nearly as cardboard cutouts. We pay for our hot dogs, get our change, and bolt, never looking the person on the other side of the counter in the eye. It’s easier this way.

But my hope is that during the course of your education here at FSU, as you see the story of your own life take shape, you become more aware of the lives taking shape around you. My hope is that as you come to terms with your own humanity, you begin to see the humanity in others.

I’m well aware that when my writing students create a character, they are learning empathy. When they plot a story, they are learning strategic thought. When they invent what might happen next, they are developing their imaginations. When they are putting one word in front of the next, they are beginning to understand, deeply, their language and are finding their own voices. When they are looking closely at the world so that they can fully describe it, they are learning observation. Empathy. Strategic thought. Imagination. Language. Voice. Observation. Regardless of a student’s path in life -- into the sciences or business, the arts or the art of politics -- these elements will go into every worthwhile endeavor they undertake in their lives.


And these lessons can be found – again and again – throughout all of our academic departments. (Tip #4 Don’t cordon off lessons taught in one area from other areas. Apply your lessons in mathematics to music. Your lesson in the chemistry of chain reactions to history. Your lessons in a foreign language to the nuances and oddities of the English language. Your lessons in biology on dissection to dissecting the arguments of great philosophers. Apply architecture to the construction of poetry.)

But the most important lesson is this. When I’m training writers, I teach them the importance of not treating people as clichés. “If you think of people as clichés,” I tell my students, “then your characters will be clichés.” If, instead, you practice the art of seeing the full humanity of the people you have been passing by every day – if you acknowledge, even for a brief moment, that that person has a life as complicated as yours – with their own set of wishes and lies and dreams and denials and quirks and fears and desires -- you will write fuller deeper richer and more realistic characters.

This lesson doesn’t only apply to writers. Humanity is at the heart of everything we study here at FSU.

To get the most out of this lesson, you first have to find the work you love to do. And this is the time in your life when you should be listening to yourself – really listening – to find the thing that you are most passionate about. (Tip #5: If you’re studying something – if you’re fully immersed in research or creating something, and you are no longer aware of the passage of time, if the world loses its edges and you glide along – fully invested – for hours, this may very well be the field of study that’s calling to you. Pay attention. Watch for that.)


Because when you immerse yourself in a field of study – and that immersion for you is fueled by your desire to help the greater good, your desire to serve humanity – great things will happen. Even if this desire to serve humanity seems vague right now and unknown – have faith that when these two things – a love of what you do and a desire to serve humanity – come together that is when the greatest leaps are made – personally, historically, professionally, artistically, scientifically …

And so this is where things begin, for each of you, in a completely new way with a new level of intensity.

And now, twenty years after my freshman year, I still believe that my life has plot.

And I’m thankful for the argument that I’ve been having with that one professor all of these years. It’s shaped not only my view of my own life, but it’s forced me to consider the humanity of the people around me every day.

Because it seems to me that the greatest most ordinary sin is the act of passing people by. Last week, I was walking around downtown, a little lost, and it started to rain. I watched people dipping from awning to awning, and noticed how we scurry around each other. There was a woman rummaging through her purse at a parking meter, there was an old man talking to himself on a street corner, there was a kid running by in an apron, late for work. I looked into their faces, each one. And I felt – for a moment – more tethered to this frenetic, beautifully ugly, messy, stunning, mysterious world. Every once in a while stop and remind yourself of this community at FSU that you’re a part of, this greater world that you’re tethered too, the humanity of those around you. Because even that fleeting moment made me a better writer, a better teacher, a better person.