Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

In 1980, one of my stories appeared in a science fiction anthology called New Dimensions. I was a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America at the time, and the following year I learned that two people had recommended my story for a Nebula Award.

I never got anywhere in this process, so I don’t know the details, but I believe it ran approximately like this: If you collected enough recommendations, your story was entered in the playoff bracket. There followed a series of competitions, involving singing, dancing, evening wear, swimsuits, and hand-to-hand combat with erasers and typewriter ribbons. The stories that survived the playoffs entered the medal round. One story eventually won a Nebula. It all started with someone taking the trouble to say that she or he liked your story.

One of my two recommenders was Marta Randall. I’ve always appreciated this, Marta, wherever you are today, but since you’re the editor who bought the story for New Dimensions this was not a surprise.

The surprise was the other person: Ursula K. Le Guin.

What? The author of The Left Hand of Darkness, which taught this teenage boy that science fiction could be about something other than rockets and robots and fearless North American white men defeating dark-skinned alien hordes with the help of a few comic Irishmen, liked something I wrote?

“The only sensible ends of literature,” Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and lastly, the solid cash.” Not bad, Nat, but you forgot something: The otherworldly feeling you experience when something you wrote speaks to someone you don’t know.

Eventually I met Ursula and spent some time with her. I’m unsure how this began. Deborah had taken three of her writing workshops in Oregon – in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, on the McKenzie River, and at Cannon Beach; Ursula had a fine sense of place – so it must’ve been in the wake of the first one.

We had dinner a couple of times with Ursula and her husband, Charles. We met their cats. We stayed overnight at their Cannon Beach beach house, where our dog Emma, who had her moods, totally charmed them. Ursula thought that Emma, racing around us on the beach, looked like Isadora Duncan, her scarf jauntily thrown over one shoulder.

Benjamin Franklin said it best in his Autobiography: “When first you wish to make a favorable impression on a new acquaintance, send in your dog.”

In a discussion with Ursula about writing I referred to my challenges in getting published. I was probably making a joke, but she listened seriously and said, “I’ve never understood that.” She wasn’t being nice. Making nice was not her thing. Ursula could be quite sharp. In her presence, you never wanted to say something stupid (my forte). These four words were enough to make me worship her, but of course I already did.

We never saw them often, and in this century even less. An occasional email. Christmas cards. She drew pictures of funny cats and dogs in the style of Thurber. She called herself “Buntho.” She called Deborah “Gort” because she’s tall. She called me “Dominant Male” (misspelled “Donimant”) because I am. (Shut up.) She was there in the background of our lives, writing another book I want to read (Lavinia, Buffalo Gals), giving another interview or talk.

How lucky we all were.

Au revoir, Ursula. Thanks for the vote of confidence in me. If I had gotten as far as the swimsuit competition, I would’ve given it my best.

 

 

In the past few years, someone I loved, someone millions of people loved, died in January. Sadly, this January is no exception. Ursula K. Le Guin died on Sunday.

Unlike the other gods who have left us to muddle through life as best we can here on Earth Prime, I knew Ursula, a little. Deborah knew her far better than me. If our first corgi, Emma, was still around, she might be able to add something, as she once took a nap on Ursula’s feet. I’m upset, and this will take me a couple of days to find something intelligent to say. Until then, I leave you with the paper of record.

Here’s your guide to Run-DMSteve: Year Seven. What Year Eight will hold for this blog, I can’t imagine, but I thank you as always for reading along and for not accusing me of sexual misconduct.

Bands

Chuck Berry

The Righteous Brothers

Level 42 and P.M. Dawn

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, R.E.M., The Killers, Ray Charles

Jazz ghetto

U2 and The Beatles

Movies

Blade Runner 2049

Thor: Ragnarok

Absent friends and ancient family

Karrie Dunning

My Dad and the Kennedys

All the rest

My brilliant career

Ask Run-DMSteve returns after five years

Ask Run-DMSteve returns after one week

Ode to Half.com

Random Pick of the Day
Joni Mitchell, For the Roses (1972)

Joni Mitchell is one of pop music’s best writers, but her stratospheric soprano voice makes it difficult for me to understand her words. Compared to For the Roses, Kurt Cobain is giving elocution lessons on Nevermind.

The instrumental backing on For the Roses is spare, mostly Mitchell on the piano, but not as spare as on her previous release, the unsparing Blue. “You Turn Me on I’m a Radio” and “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” got the airplay. Those are great songs, but over the years, I’ve gravitated toward “Blonde in the Bleachers”:

She tapes her regrets
To the microphone stand
She says, “You can’t hold the hand
Of a rock ’n’ roll man
Very long
Or count on your plans
With a rock ’n’ roll man
Very long
Compete with the fans
For your rock ’n’ roll man
For very long
The girls and the bands
And the rock ’n’ roll man”

Forty years later, Pete Yorn tried to explain the rock ’n’ roll man in “Rock Crowd”:

Rock crowd throw your arms around me
I feel glad when you all surround me
It’s you, it’s you who grounds me
When you’re done put me back where you found me

There’s no hint on For the Roses to the direction Mitchell would take on her next release, Court and Spark, the album that defines her as surely Tapestry defines Carole King.

Random Pan of the Day
Marvin Gaye, In Our Lifetime (1981)

The title has nothing to do with Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time.

By this point in his career, Gaye was singing all the parts, playing most of the instruments, and writing most of the songs. But he wasn’t in a happy state of mind, as he was fighting with his ex-wives and trying to compete with upstarts Prince and Rick James. He was living in exile in Belgium. No offense to Belgium, but that’s my idea of an anonymous country. The man’s mood was reflected in the cover art: Angel Marvin and Devil Marvin face off above exploding A-bombs. I guess Prince really pissed him off.

The songs are non-stop party jams. Slow party jams. You can’t dance to them unless you’re one of these arrhythmic people who always go to the same dances I go to and who spend the night swanning around as if somebody had injected them with Lorazepam. If you played this at a party, you’d only get about three tracks in before somebody swapped it for a more exciting set. This is a clear case of the parts not adding up to a whole. You’ll remember some of the grooves days later, but none of the songs.

Gaye redeemed himself in 1982 with Midnight Love and his last hit, “Sexual Healing,” and then he was murdered. We can’t know what his third decade in the music business would’ve given us, but I’m sure it would’ve been worth hearing.

Mercy mercy me. Things ain’t what they used to be.

 

Are you offended by bad language? Inappropriate sex? How about working all day in an office? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re going to love the story I just published in Across the Margin, “a webzine dedicated to culture, truth, and madness”!

Here I was, getting ready to report to you on all the life-affirming and life-deadening music I’ve been finding at yard sales this summer, and what happens? A breathless editor called to say Yes!

Oops, I did it again
Normally, I only publish one story per decade. With only three years left on the shot clock, how did I kick a second story into the goal? Are editors finally catching up with me, or am I finally getting better?

If you worked with me on one of my 452 jobs and you spot a disguised version of you in this piece – it’s not you.

Run-DMSteve! You’re my favorite writer. How can I make you look good in one easy step?
If you enjoy this story, please like it, share it, print it and leave it at the hair salon, or talk it up with family, friends, and that special someone with whom you have hate sex. Help me follow in the wanderin’ boot heels of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan.

Thank you, and happy reading!

 

When I launched this blog in 2010, I knew that sex and motherhood were the showstoppers of the blogging world. I knew that if you combined the two, you’d end up with a book deal. So naturally, I decided to write about music. This helps explain why, though money and I sometimes fall into bed, money always leaves early the next morning.

(Notice how I worked in sex there. You can sometimes catch a glimpse of sex in this blog, but we’ll never come near motherhood unless my mother happens to be having a birthday – which she did last week. Good work, Mom.)

Today’s post is another guaranteed money-maker: Part I of what books I read in 2014. But stay with me and I’ll offer you the first-ever Run-DMSteve sex tip!

A few Decembers ago, when I made my resolutions for the new year, I decided to give myself a reading theme. That first theme was 19th-century U.S. novels. I got through all the Little Women books and a couple of others, and then I cheated on my theme. I confess that I cheated several times. Then I gave up my theme because I thought I’ve cheated so what was the point? This was sort of like quitting your diet because you accidentally ate all the chocolate chip cookies.

Now I want to accidentally eat all the chocolate chip cookies.

In December of 2013 I realized that this sort of neg-head downer thinking will never get me anywhere. So I cheat on my theme – so big deal. We’re all adults here. I can always go back to my theme. I resolved to try again in 2014, this time with biographies. I chose this theme because I had collected lots of them but I’d read very few. So here’s the first half of my report, now with 50% more sex!

Writing a biography and making a life come alive is tough work. You need an interesting subject, or a subject you can make interesting. Things get a lot tougher if you’re a bad writer. That’s what happened with our first contestant, Gordon F. Sander’s Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television’s Last Angry Man (1992).

Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone, thought up the iconic ending of Planet of the Apes, and was one of the best storytellers of television’s first golden age. Gordon F. Sander can tell a story, but not well. To be sure, he finds it almost impossible to begin a sentence without “To be sure.” Indeed, he can’t resist “Indeed,” either. Plus he’s the author of this immortal sentence, about the reaction of Serling’s future wife on meeting him when they were students at Antioch University:

At first, she admitted, she was as overwhelmed by the leather-jacketed kamikaze as the rest of the distaff Antiochans Serling had brought to ground.

If you loved The Twilight Zone and if you can absorb subpar prose without developing a rash, you’ll enjoy this book.

Rod Serling Fun Fact: Sander missed the boat on Alice Marble, Serling’s mistress in the early 1960s, whom he identifies as a former American tennis champion. What he doesn’t go into is that Marble was also a spy in WWII for the OSS (the agency that became the CIA). Also, Marble was 50 and Serling was 39 when they began their affair.

Bonus Fun Fact: CBS President Frank Stanton said that Serling “was the only writer I had ever met who looked like his work.”

What happens when you combine a bad writer with a bad person? You get Kenneth Silverman’s Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1997). Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874) was intelligent, ingenious, fearless, the hardest working man in show biz, and one of the greatest athletes of his time. He was also paranoid, a liar, hobbled by sentimentality and a fear of death, a guy who always had to be right, and a relentless self-promoter. When he was invited to write the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “conjuring” he turned in an essay on himself.

Having read this book, I know everything about Houdini, except why I should care. I’m not sure Silverman even likes Houdini. The author’s one-fact-at-a-time account makes for slow reading, but the book jumps to attention when Houdini survives 90 minutes in a coffin underwater. To be sure, that episode was hair-raising! Indeed, I’m not sorry I read Houdini!!!, but it could’ve been a lot better.

Houdini Fun Fact: Houdini contributed many articles to the newspapers of his day. One of his ghostwriters was H.P. Lovecraft.

Even when the writing is passable you can’t do much with a boring subject, as Herbert R. Lottman discovers in Jules Verne: An Exploratory Biography (1996).

How did Jules Verne transform himself from a writer of light romantic comedies for the Paris stage and a part-time stockbroker into “the first writer to welcome change and to proclaim that scientific discovery could be the most wonderful of adventures” (Arthur C. Clarke)? We’re not going to find out from this book. Verne was dull, a man who read widely but didn’t like to leave home. But he could grind out the words! I could learn a lesson from that.

Jules Verne is interesting for a while, but Lottman is eventually reduced to recounting plots of melodramatic books and that became a chore for this reader. The book did induce me to reread From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon. They’re OK for kids. In the words of critic Kingsley Amis, “In its literary aspect [Verne’s] work is, of course, of poor quality, a feature certainly reproduced with great fidelity by most of his successors.”

Jules Verne Fun Fact: There are no Jules Verne fun facts.

One last example of how not to do it: Robert Calder’s Willie: The Life of W. Somerset Maugham  (1989).

W. Somerset Maugham wrote The Razor’s Edge, Of Human Bondage, and The Moon and Sixpence. I don’t think he’s much read today, and this book did not turn back the clock. Calder methodically lays out his facts, but he doesn’t understand Maugham’s bisexuality. Does he enjoy Maugham’s books? I can’t tell. Calder will never be noted for his lyrical style…though Maugham wasn’t, either. I kept reading because Maugham’s life was fascinating (he was a British spy in WWI and probably came back for an encore in WWII) and that life glimmered through the pedestrian prose.

Maugham lived to be 91. He knew everyone. Calder notes every dinner guest, house guest, bridge partner, and traveling companion, but only occasionally gives you some context. There are five googleable names on every page; those I looked up reminded me of how fleeting is fame. Authors of 20, 40, even 60 books regularly enter these pages – names that have left barely a ripple in the fabric of space-time.

Because of Willie I finally read “Miss Sadie Thompson,” better known as “Rain.” Wow.

Maugham Fun Fact: Maugham was the highest-paid writer in the world in the 1930s. His competition was Hugh Walpole, another writer who has disappeared. If Walpole is known for anything today, it’s his mention in Monty Python’s “Cheese Shop” sketch.

In our next exciting episode I’ll present the winners in the biography sweepstakes. Now you get the first-ever Run-DMSteve sex tip: Read A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts is one of the many books I cheated with in 2014. The book’s premise is simple: Reverse-engineer human sexuality based on what humanity searches for online. The results are eye-popping. Approach this book with an open mind or be ready to skim lots of pages. Do you ever think about sex? There are lots of people just like you! Give this book a try.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts Fun Fact: Straight men and gay men like all the same things in porn. It’s all about the dick. The only difference between the two genres is the presence or absence of a woman.

Bonus Fun Fact: There are no gay women in this book. Well then who is the audience for Adventures of a Lesbian Cowboy?

 

In this season of thankfulness, I want to sincerely thank everyone who has ever written me a letter. I love the mail. I love playing in the mail. I was lucky to have had two superlative, longtime pen pals, but alas, they are no more. They have ceased to be. They have kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible. In a word, they’ve changed their address. (Yes, I know that’s four words. I’m a big tipper.)

I don’t remember how I got involved with mail. Like most boys my age, I sent my allowance money to shady companies that advertised incredible promises in the back pages of Batman and Justice League of America. For example, there was a dramatic half-page ad for a “Civil War battle set” that would enable me to re-create the entire Virginia campaign from the moment Grant took command of the Army of the Potomac…and all for a couple of dollars!

Imagine my surprise when the mailman did not drive up with a truck and a crane to deliver my Civil War battle set but instead handed me a box in which you could’ve packed cough drops. The blue and gray soldiers were translucent fingernails of plastic that barely existed in three dimensions. Even their artillery was flat as a pancake. I didn’t repeat this mistake later on when I saw the dramatic ad in some other comic for the Battle of Midway battle set.

But when did I start writing letters? Who was my first letter-writing chum? I don’t know. I do know that back in the 1960s, in fourth or fifth grade, we all had at least one class in how to write “The Friendly Letter.”

Dear [name],

How are you? I am fine. [The rest of this paragraph was about what we were doing in school and how much we liked our teacher.]

[The second paragraph was about our wholesome home life. A pet featured prominently, or if you didn’t have a pet you could make do with a younger sibling.]

[Complimentary close: Take care, Your friend, Sincerely, Write back, etc. If you were a girl-type person you drew a heart for the dot over the i.]

Stevie

I grew up (somehow) and found people to correspond with. I added different types of letters to my repertoire; in addition to the Friendly Letter, there was the College Admission Letter, the Cover Letter, the Query Letter, the I’ve Read Too Much Thomas Wolfe or Too Many French Existentialists Letter, the I’ve Owed You a Letter for Six Months Letter, the Begging for a Job Letter, and the Begging for Sex Letter.

Some of these letters are not effective and should be discontinued.

Well, I am still a lucky guy, and not just for having known Judy and Jack or two of my other veterans, Pauline and Tilda. I guess the Lords of Kobol heard my prayers, because in the absence of old friends, new ones have stepped in and sent me mail. I was happily surprised when I made a list because there are more of you than I thought: Accused of Lurking, Mr. Seaside, Starry-Eyed Stamper, K to the T, and Mark It K8, among others. Special D is not above cutting the side out of a beer carton and making me a postcard. (K to the T, Accused of Lurking, and Mr. Seaside have all pulled off this trick with beer coasters.)

Another of my correspondents is Johnny Five. J5 deploys his skills primarily to mock me, but it’s mail and I’ll take it.

Johnny5

Thank you, everyone who has ever written me a letter, dashed off a postcard, or selected an insulting greeting card. Thanks to all of you for going to the trouble of finding a stamp because you knew I’d enjoy your barely legible scribbling. Thanks to you vacationers who thought of me in far-away places and bought a postcard and remembered to send it a week after you got home. Thanks to those of you who created your own postcards. And thanks for the beer coasters. Note to self: One is an accident, two is a coincidence, but three is a collection. I’d better make a checklist.

Today’s Randoms: The Land Down Under Edition

Thumbs-up
Courtney Barnett, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (2013)
Ms. Barnett is a poet who sings/talks you through her songs as if you were walking with her through the low-key chaos of her life or helping her into the ambulance following an asthma attack in the garden. She’s a female Lou Reed or a non-crazy Courtney Love. The Smithereens would’ve been a great backing band for her, but I like the lo-fi rockers she’s recruited. (Her bass player is Bones Sloane!)

“Avant Gardener” is fabulous. “David” sounds like Bowie’s “The Jean Genie,” though Bowie’s song is closer in its imagery to Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” while Barnett’s song includes the line “Come on Davey, let’s go plant a tree/You bring the spade, I’ll bring the seeds.” On “Anonymous Club,” Barnett evokes Neil Young in his quieter moments. She does the same for Liz Phair on “Scotty Says” and “Are You Looking After Yourself.” Some duds here – the last two tracks are a drag – but overall, I’m really digging her music.

Guilty pleasure
When I first read the name INXS, I pronounced it “Inks.” I was busted in public for it, too. Same deal with R.E.M., which I pronounced “Rem.” But I can’t compete with a former co-worker who thought the name of the melancholic English New Wave band that recorded “Personal Jesus” and “Strangelove” was “Pesh DeMode.” (This mangling fits with a line from another Depeche Mode song, “Behind the Wheel”: “I hand myself/over on a plate.”)

INXS doesn’t have a single album I’d spend money on, but I love “The One Thing” (Shabooh Shoobah), “Original Sin” (The Swing), “New Sensation” (Kick), and “Suicide Blonde” (X). I won’t even buy the U.S. edition of their greatest hits because these four songs come with 12 I don’t want. (The Australian and U.K. editions include even more crap.) But I do love those four songs.

Shabooh Shoobah is a stupid name for an album, a movie, a car, a dog, or a mathematical theorem, but it would superbly suit a political party.

No no no no no!!!

Angel City

Angel City, Night Attack (1982)
Angel City is an Australian band that made the mistake of forming about the same time as AC/DC but without any of AC/DC’s skills. And AC/DC is not overflowing with skills.

They were The Angels in Australia and Angel City in the rest of the world. I found a few of their songs online, including the intriguingly named “Dogs Are Talking.” Turns out those dogs got nothing to say. The best part of Night Attack is the cover. Their cover model looks exactly like a gentleman I worked with in the early 1990s. Bruce never shot lasers out of his eyes, but perhaps he did that outside the office when I couldn’t see him. I’ll write him a letter.

 

Cleo at her command post
This dog is guarding the house.

We had to put our dog Cleo to sleep yesterday. She had been gradually losing control of her back legs, but her descent had accelerated and she was spending more time just sitting, inspecting the grass around her and taking sensor readings of the air. It was five months to the day since I first saw her wobbling at high speed around the pen where she was being held. How can one undersized corgi become an oversized part of your life in just five months?

On her last day, Cleo slept on the bed, ate lots of treats, rolled in the grass, took a few steps on her favorite trail, charmed one last stranger, and (briefly) chased a squirrel. That would be a good day for most humans. I’ll miss the war she waged against the chickadees in our backyard, the way she swam through the undergrowth in the forest, and how she would kick me awake at 3am because she was dreaming about chasing down a moose. Like most of us, in her dream life she was invincible.

Cheryl Strayed wrote in Wild, “The universe takes things away and never gives them back.” But the universe also gives you gifts. Cleo was a gift to us in a dark hour, and we’ll never regret taking a chance on her.

Cleo's tulip parade 041414
Tulips on parade.

Horace Silver, 1928-2014
Horace Silver was my favorite jazz pianist, though I didn’t discover him until his 1996 release, The Hard-Bop Grandpop. The man was a jazz institution and I came to him very late in his career. Two earlier albums that I know and can recommend are Blowin’ the Blues Away (1959) and especially Song for My Father (1964). RIP.

I was dreamin’ when I wrote this/forgive me if it goes astray
Let’s change the mood here. The Prince Project is on hold (just when were getting to the most notorious albums) because I am once again participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. I’m not going to blog about it because doing that last summer was insane. Instead, I’m signing off. See you on August 2. Enjoy your summer!

Random Pick of the Day
The Beatles, Revolver (1966)
Four things strike me as I listened to Revolver after many years of not listening to it:

One is that The Beatles embarked on 14 separate explorations of new musical pathways and brought each of them home in a concise 2-3 minutes. Arcade Fire or Pink Floyd would still be playing.

Two is that the album begins with something as mundane as taxes and ends with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. (Do the Tibetans read any fun books?)

Three is that “She Said She Said” would fit into any alt-rock radio playlist in 1986, 1996, 2006, and probably in 2166.

Four is that The Beatles’ experiment with Indian music is like punk’s flirtation a decade later with reggae – interesting, but only to a point, which in The Beatles’ case will come the following year on Sgt. Pepper.

A must-own album. But you already do.

I’m back after a tumultuous week. We went on a road trip to Bellingham, Wash., and hiked in perfect weather on Mt. Baker (with a view of the North Cascades that extended deep into Canada). We last hiked Skyline Divide in 1995 and it was good to know that we could still do the steep ascent.

Emma Steve Skyline Divide Spring 1995
Emma conquers the wilderness, spring 1995.

I returned to a paying job, hallelujah, but a cold was raging through the office and by Wednesday afternoon it was mine, all mine. I somehow made it home and dived into bed, where I spent most of Thursday hallucinating that I was in Depeche Mode. I’m only starting to feel some synapses firing today. This is particularly frustrating because I’m dying to get back to my book.

But first, what did I learn from the Write-a-thon, aside from the fact that my goal of writing 25,000 words in six weeks was somewhere north of insane?

Many writers have said that while working on a novel they often flirt with other, smaller projects. (Special D is not of this school.) They give many reasons: It keeps them fresh, it’s a reward, it helps them get through those parts of the book where you feel as if you’re slogging through an ocean of mud.

If I were to take a break from my book to work on a short story, I’d get so wrapped up in this new fictional world it that it would be hard to find my way back. Fiction is too involving for me, and anyway I write slowly.

What the Write-a-thon taught me is that I could take breaks from my book by blogging. I’m listening to all this music anyway. Why not jot down a few insults and type them up later? Besides, blogging is done with a different part of the brain. I believe it’s the part of the brain we chew gum with. This explains why any idiot can be a blogger.

Writing a novel every day and blogging every day were fine for six weeks but exhausting beyond that. So I’m returning to my original Sunday blogging schedule while I return to my book and while I figure out what “blogging” means for the future. Thanks, as always, for reading along. Your support means the world to me.

When next we meet: All the bands I’m disqualifying from the “Let Me Count the Ways” band project!

Rock ’n’ roll has come a long way

Why? takes hip-hop, stirs it up with a hefty scoop of indie rock, then tops it off with a sprinkling of psychedelic electro-pop. These Jewish art-school dropouts know how to emcee and throw down the beats – you’ll see some mad strumming, plucking, and schvitzing all night, too.

(Portland Mercury, 27 February 2013)