Saturday, October 27, 2012

Blogging in one place

If you've managed to find your way to this site, you obviously can see that I'm no longer updating it. Just another one of the abandoned blogs that litter my writing past.

An old friend of mine once commented that he couldn't find his way back to a post he had stumbled upon because I had "so many damn blogs." Some people collect cars, trophy wives, and other accoutrements of American privilege. Lacking that capacity, I collect blogs.

My newest blog and one I hope has a run like this former long-running blog of mine is located at the Jim Baumer Experience. It's where I'm posting what I have to say from here on out. I hope you'll become a regular over there.

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

Endings...and a new beginning

I've maintained a schizophrenic online existence, trying to maintain multiple blogs, including this one, which has by-and-large been focused on writing and publishing.

I've been looking for a way to consolidate my online profile and my writing, and I've done that over at

From here on out, if you want to read my thoughts about writing, books, and publishing (which will continue, in a somewhat altered format), then the home page at that site is where to find me.

I've appreciated the many visitors over my time here, as well as the handful of regulars that have come and gone. I remain passionate about many things that prompted me to get rolling and embrace the blogging platform, and I'll continue to share them from to time via my blog at the new site.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Reading material

Writers should be readers. In fact, a number of writers, particularly those writers that teach and instruct about the craft of writing, make strong cases to their students that regular time spent reading is essential, if they want to excel as writers. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment.

My own abilities as a writer, especially regarding usage and grammar have more to do with reading than any kind of foundation I acquired during English classes in school. I could not diagram a sentence if my life depended upon it. I would have a hard time breaking down and naming the parts of speech. Yet, because I’ve been a reader since a very early age, I think I’ve acquired an intuitive sense for grammar and English usage.

Most of the books I’ve read over the years—probably 95 percent of them—have been nonfiction. This past year, I’ve read books like this one, by Susan Jacoby. I also read another stellar Jacoby nonfiction work on the freethought movement that became one of several History Maker Mondays I posted for a brief period of time at my other blog. Just prior to Christmas, I completed this one about God and Wal-Mart. These are typical of my orientation and flavor on the nonfiction side. Early in 2009, I read several excellent books about FDR, including Nick Taylor’s very thorough book on the Works Progress Administration. On the occasions that I have picked up a work of fiction, more times than not I’ve enjoyed reading the book. Some of them turned out to be page turners, and I blew through them quickly.

Over Christmas, my son was home for three weeks. A writer, too, Mark is currently enrolled in Brown’s two-year MFA program in Creative Writing.

Over his time away from school and relaxing at home, Mark read an assortment of books, sometimes one a day, with most, if not all of them being ones that were sitting on our bookshelves. This pleased my wife and I, as we’re both readers, and it also impressed me immensely. Not knowing a lot about MFA programs other than that many well-known writers have completed one, if the program demanded their writers immerse themselves in a literary atmosphere of books, readings, and writing for two years, this had to be a good thing.

It’s been interesting to follow Mark’s reading and MFA adventures via his blog. Much like I took an interest in his progress as a baseball player, culminating in a great four-year run at Wheaton College, I’ve been following his writing, first via a zine he created at school, called GMBO. Later, he developed Everyday Yeah, which has now morphed into the official brown mfa blog #1.

One of Mark’s holiday reads was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I knew McCarthy’s book had been well-received, and even received a 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Heck, it was even featured as one of Oprah’s book picks. Maybe it was because of the latter that I stayed away, or maybe it was for some other reason that I passed on the book.

After Mark read it and wrote the following on New Year’s Day, I decided to reconsider and give it a try:

The Road is the best book I’ve read this year. Maybe even the best book I read in 2009. I read the first 80 pages a few days ago and read the rest of it today. There really is no reason not to read this. It’ll take about eight hours. I’m a slow reader and I almost read it all in one day.

I read McCarthy’s book the following day, in about four hours—all in one setting. It was a great book, and not at all “depressing,” as some reviewers have indicated.

Maybe it had to do with it being about the relationship about boy and his father. Certainly, if you crave nonstop action, The Road will probably be disappointing. For me, however, I think McCarthy’s take on the relationship of the two main characters, their struggles along the road in a bleak, post-apocalyptic world, with a few plot twists thrown in made me want to crave a subsequent follow up read like it—something that was fiction, and a page turner. Not my usual type of book, I know.

After Mark left to return to Brown, I looked around his room to see if there were some other books like The Road lying around. I attempted James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, about his decade of self-exile in Europe. I got about a quarter of the way into it, before putting it down. Another novel scavenged from our crowded book shelves only to spend two successive nights dozing off and not getting further than 20 pages told me that I needed to move onto something else.

Last week, I stopped at the Maine State Library for a quick peruse of their literary fiction section. I happened to find a collection of Raymond Carver short stories. The book’s captured my attention, and the short story format, not one I usually gravitate to, seems to be just what I need right now, as my reading attention span seems to be shorter than usual.

Carver’s Collected Stories, is published by the Library of America and edited by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll. This collection is the first one that gathered all of his stories in one volume and provides a comprehensive overview of his career. I’m really enjoying it.

I now know why Carver was considered one of the late 20th centuries best fiction writers, and someone that breathed new life into the short story. His writing, held up as an example of what was being called “minimalist” at the time, derives its power more from what is suggested, or left unsaid.

While I don’t think I can match my son’s reading prowess, and certainly not the ambitious book devouring proposed by another blogger, Lisa K, I’m going to try to incorporate regular reading of fiction to start 2010.

2009 was the year I finally conquered David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest along with many others. Maybe 2010 will be my year of mostly fiction, and the year when I finally tackle some of the classics, although I don’t think I’ll limit myself merely to older books. I’m finding an entire stable of newer fiction writers that Mark has referenced via his blog.

In the coming weeks are Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (an American fiction classic that I’ve never read), Candide, by Voltaire, and maybe some Flannery O’Connor.

I welcome any other fiction suggestions.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

God's call

[This narrative describes how I ended up in Indiana, at a fundamentalist Bible college in the Midwest in the early 80s.

If you've visited my various blogs, particularly Words Matter, you may have gleaned details of that experience from periodic posts referencing that time in my life, during my early 20s, when Mary and I were just starting out. In fact, Mark was born in Indiana, almost 26 years ago.

This post is something I wrote last year when I was attempting to sort through various experiences in Indiana, my fundamentalist adventure, and ultimately, understand how I ended up in that place (geographically, spiritually, and psychically).

Given my unique experiences near the inner sanctum of a major American theological movement, and sitting every Sunday, listening and observing one of fundamentalism's "A-list" figures, at least in the context of Independent Baptists has always made me think that capturing those experiences in book form might be a worthwhile exercise. Unfortunately, while I've started several times, including after spending a week in Indiana two years ago, revisiting the proverbial "scene of the crime," Hyles-Anderson College, in Crown Point, I've never been able to push forward and capture the story in a way that I think is worthy of a book-length effort.

While I'm not even close to having a book about those experiences, I've decided to publish periodic snippets of some of those initial pieces that I've been working on. Additionally, I have some other personal stories that I think I'll semi-regularly post here at this blog, which is centered on writing, mine, as well as other more successful, and probably, more talented writers.

Keep in mind that while I've edited these some for grammar and spelling, they're in a rough draft stage. I hope you enjoy these and feel free to offer thoughts, and constructive feedback if so led, and whether or not you think that others might want to know more about my fundamentalist journey.--JB]

Call To Preach

Waves of nausea washed over me, as the altar call dragged on interminably. The room was too warm. The strains of organ music warbling in my ringing ears only made it more obvious that if I didn’t exit the auditorium soon, admonitions to deepen my fundamentalist commitment, or not, I was going to spew vomit all over the middle-aged couple in front of me.

Excusing myself from my row, catching a glare from Dan Chamberland, my home pastor, I darted towards the exit, knowing I was seconds away from embarrassing myself, and depositing my breakfast from Bob Evans on the gold, inlaid carpet of the First Baptist Church of Hammond.

It wasn’t my intention to bail on the great Jack Hyles, closing out another rousing Sunday service, especially since this was my first visit to the Mecca of independent Baptist fundamentalism, at the start of Pastors’ School week, March, 1983.

Mary and I, still newlyweds, having been married the previous July, had traveled to Hammond, to attend Jack Hyles’ 20th annual Pastors’ School, an event that drew fundamentalist pastors and other leaders from around the world to economically-depressed northwest Indiana.

Hyles, who pastored one of America’s largest churches, held his annual prophetic call to pastors each March. The weeklong institute on how to simulate First Baptist’s magic elsewhere, was a lure for many struggling pastors, most of them in small communities across the U.S.

Chamberland, who was pastoring a small church running less than 100 regulars, had begun attending Pastors’ School several years prior. Stating that it “recharges my spiritual batteries,” Chamberland regularly sought to entice other members to make the 1,100 mile pilgrimage with him and his wife, Ruth.

Mary and I had been attending Tabernacle Baptist since early in 1982. Chamberland had taken a liking to us, possibly because he saw two young, energetic Christians, with a seriousness about their faith.

Early in January of 1983, I had gone forward one Sunday morning, during Chamberland’s call for a deepened commitment to Christianity. It was on that cold winter morning when I felt “called” to the pastorate. Later, when I shared this with Chamberland, he began insisting that I needed to head to Hammond with him and Ruth, in March.

Two vehicles left the Tabernacle Baptist parking lot, early Friday morning, March 17, 1983. Mary and I were ensconced in the backseat of Pastor Dan’s Suburu wagon, along with Ruth. Dick Ramsey, a deacon at the church, his wife, Phyllis, and Ken and Linda Morse made up the rest of the Tabernacle contingent.

The goal was to push it hard Friday, and then coast into the Hammond area on Saturday, in time for Sunday service at First Baptist.

A 12 hour day on the road put us just east of Youngstown, Ohio. The day had been long, and after some early awkwardness, riding in the pastor’s car, the conversation got easier along the way.

Both Mary and I were still comparatively new Christians, particularly practicing the fundamentalist brand of religion common to independent Baptists. While we both turned our lives over to Christ in college, back in 1981, both Dan and Ruth Chamberland grew up in Christian homes, and had been raised in the culture of the Baptist church.

To hear Pastor Dan tell it, however, his parents were members of a “liberal” church, one without standards—indicators of “separation from the world”—that independent Baptists put great stock in. Examples of biblical separation would be prohibitions against attending Hollywood movies, wearing bathing suits, gambling, drinking alcohol, and on and on the list goes, depending on the strictness of the church denomination.

Tabernacle based their separation practices on the teachings of Jack Hyles, who got much of his own guidance on the fundamentals of the independent Baptist way, and of separation, from John R. Rice, a well-known evangelist, who wrote many books, and was a significant influence on Pastor Hyles, and other similar pastors of his generation.

Hyles in turn, began influencing other pastors through his own books, and by holding events like Pastors' School. Each year, when Chamberland attended, he’d come back with sermon ideas, books he’d picked up, and a determination that this would be the year that his small church would “take off,” and start a dynamic growth spurt.

Interestingly, Chamberland wasn’t a graduate of Hyles-Anderson College, the school that Pastor Hyles founded in 1972, with financial help from Ypsalanti, Michigan businessman, Russell Anderson. Chamberland had attended Liberty College (now Liberty University), a well-known Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell.

While Hyles was a larger than life figure within the narrow confines of the independent Baptist world, a world separated from the “godless” practices of the heathen, Falwell was a giant, in the world of Christianity, as well as politics, having the ear of key leaders in Washington.

Falwell had been the founders of the Moral Majority, an organization made up of various political action committees, committed to political lobbying on behalf of Christian causes, as well as electing committed Christians to public office, locally, at the state level, and nationally.

It was Falwell’s belief that Christians were to be the “salt and light” to the world, based upon Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5:13-16. From this, Falwell developed an outreach much like Hyles, training the next generation of pastors and Christian leaders through his college. Where these two men differed, however, was in area of standards, and separation. Hyles also had little or no desire to engage in the political arena, stating that it was not the place of the church to politicize. It was his belief that the role of Christians and the church was to “win souls,” which was a position that Hyles gleaned from John R. Rice.

Chamberland had cooled in his ardor for Falwell, and much of what Liberty had become. Despite the school being his alma mater, Chamberland was vocal in his criticism of Falwell, for “compromising his standards,” and leaving the fundamentalist fold, as he characterized it. This falling out with his place of training had been the source of a major rift at Tabernacle Baptist the previous fall.

When Mary and I first began attending Tabernacle, in the spring of 1982, Lon Grovesteen had been the director of Tabernacle Academy, the church’s small Christian school begun two years prior. Grovesteen, also a graduate of Liberty College, was a dynamic presence in the church. A gifted, charismatic leader, both he and his wife Kay went out of their way to welcome Mary and I.

While we respected Chamberland as pastor, there was something about the Grovesteens that seemed different. Maybe it was Kay’s southern charm and warmth she gave off. Lon was grace and aplomb personified, and cast a large presence in the church community. Tall, and one who was at home in front of a congregation, leading music, or filling in for the pastor when he was off on one of his semi-regular fishing trips, Grovesteen was a sharp contrast to Chamberland’s more dour and confrontational personality.

One of the areas that independent Baptists put great emphasis upon was the area of evangelism, or “soul winning,” as they call the practice of going outside the church to proselytize, and attempt to preach the gospel to those that aren’t practitioners of Christianity.

At Tabernacle, Wednesday nights were visitation night. A small group would gather at the church, and Pastor Dan would have cards, either from visitors that had visited the church, cards from parents of students at Tabernacle Academy that may have not been attending regularly, and even notes that were sent to the pastor’s radio show that he taped each week, on WKXA, in Bath.

Mary and I began attending this outreach during the summer. Our first evening doing visitation saw us paired with the Grovesteens. I would be with Lon, and Mary assigned to visits with Kay.

Seeing Lon Grovesteen in action was impressive for me, since I had little experience with this kind of visitation, or evangelism. Since committing my life to Christ, in the fall of 1980, I had shared the gospel with others, while a student at the University of Maine. I’d also attempted to “witness” to my parents, my wife’s parents and family, and others, but other than seeing Mary convert, I’d not been what Hyles and others would consider a soulwinner.

Grovesteen had a natural and easygoing way of greeting people at the door. He was comfortable with small talk and even the most suspicious person was eventually disarmed by Grovesteen’s charm. He had an ability to revert to a southern “aw shucks” persona when appropriate, or when the situation called for it, be stately, and appear much more worldly in his demeanor.

Beyond Wednesday night visitation, the most effective outreach that was being done was Grovesteen’s work with families stationed in the Topsham, Brunswick, Bath area, at Brunswick Naval Air Station. Grovesteen had been involved in service outreach prior to being hired at Tabernacle, and as a result, the congregation had a strong representation of military families attending.

As a young couple in the church, looking to grow and get involved, Lon and Kay Grovesteen were great role models for us. It was Lon that recruited me to teach my first Sunday School class. Kay, tall and attractive, was someone that I know influenced Mary, and provided a couple that seemed more on our level, than the pastor and his wife, who both, for whatever reason, seemed aloof and removed.

In September, we were heartbroken to learn that the Grovesteens would be leaving Tabernacle. Not much was spoken about the reasons, but the rumor was that there were differences in doctrine between Chamberland and Grovesteen. Much of that difference probably had to do with Grovesteen being more of a Liberty man, and Chamberland’s devotion to the teaching of Hyles. Nevertheless, Tabernacle Baptist had lost a dynamic young couple, their family, and several other key military families. This left a major hole within the Tabernacle congregation that would never completely heal the remainder of the time that Mary and I attended.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reflections on the inaugural Boston Book Festival

Boston is remembered as “The Hub,” by most anyone that still has any sense of American history. It derives from Boston’s place as a leading economic/commerce, educational, and even intellectual center, as America developed as a nation. Originally coined from an Oliver Wendell Holmes novel, where in 1858, the Cambridge-born author/philosopher referred to the Massachusetts State House as “the hub of the solar system.” Later, residents of the burgeoning metropolis adopted their own self-referential moniker, calling Boston, “the hub of the universe. Sadly, the term is rarely used today, and most have no sense of what it means.

It is only fitting then, in that spirit, that Boston, a city with a long history of books and publishing, a place where America’s first newspaper was founded, as well as firsts for having a public library, and place of the first printing press, would host a major book festival. Boston was once the home of Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau. It is home to some of this country’s and even the world’s top institutions of higher learning. It is a place with a rich tradition related to the written word, and understands attention to words—an understanding that words matter.

I was thrilled to be attending my second major book festival of 2009. After April’s thrilling journey to the west coast, and spending a day at UCLA taking in my very first book festival at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, I now had a proper frame of reference for evaluating Boston’s maiden voyage, celebrating books.

Copley Square was a good locale for the first one. The area offered symmetry and form that made logistical sense. As Boston goes, and given that there are areas of the city that are problematic to say the least, from an arrival and departure sense, Copley provided a positive setting to launch this first one.

I have always enjoyed the Copley Square area. The juxtaposition of old and new, historical, and modern, as well as the relative ease of getting there by car, with the Prudential Center garage nearby making my arrival practically painless, were all positives for me when I first considered attending. Then, the festival planners began listing the authors that would be attending; this first run-through would offer plenty of panels filled with A-list authors, thinkers, and funny people. Since it was only a bit more than two hours away by car (or bus/train, which I could have chosen) made this a no-brainer for me. Lastly, the festival offered a plausible excuse for my writer-in-training son taking the train up from Brown to meet me and hangout for the day with his old man.

We met on Boylston, after I exited Prudential Center. Unfortunately, his rural rube of a father had turned left, instead of going right, but a quick conference by cell phone with Mark got me turned around and we met up.

We strolled across Copley Plaza, picking up our program guides, $16 parking pass for me, and free ice cream sample provided by Brigham’s Ice Cream. We talked panel strategy for our day, or better, what three, or four events we’d like to check out.

I wanted to attend "Ties that Bind," featuring Richard Russo, who now lives in Maine, and a writer that I think captures the grittiness of small towns as well as anyone I’ve read. The other panelists, Elinor Lipman and Michael Thomas weren’t familiar to me.

Boston’s Old South Church, where this panel was being held is a magnificent example of what mid-19th century Boston must have been like. While most Congregational churches throughout New England tended to shun ornate construction, opting instead for a simple white, wooden design, and perfunctory architecture befitting their theology of the time, this historically significant building features a Northern Italian architectural design. Featuring a tall bell tower, brown, pink and grey stonework, walls of Roxbury puddingstone, decorative wood carvings, as well as a roof striped with tiles of red and black slate and a cupola or lantern of green and russet-colored copper, the church indicates that when built in the late 1870s, it was for a well-heeled congregation.

We arrived about 30 minutes prior to the 11:00 a.m. starting time, which was a wise decision on our part. The seating inside was about three quarters full, but we nabbed a decent spot about halfway back on the left side of the church.

I found Lipman’s presentation fairly non-descript, and unremarkable. She may be a successful author, but knowing little or nothing about her, I took nothing away from her 10-15 minute talk.

Next up was Russo. He appeared very comfortable in front of a large audience, which I estimated to be around 250-300 people. A 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel, Empire Falls, which depicted a once thriving mill town, fallen upon tough times—his fictional locale could be any of several communities in Maine, and elsewhere across the United States, as manufacturing dies a slow, painful death. When the book was made into a two-part miniseries on HBO, much of it was filmed in Skowhegan, Waterville, and Winslow, at the suggestion of Russo, who understood how these towns perfectly captured the aura of the fictional post-industrial town in his book.

Russo spoke about autobiography and imagination. He told a story about his friend, author Pete Dexter, who was upset when a reviewer referred to his latest book, Spooner, as autobiographical.

Apparently, many fiction writers bristle at having their work labeled autobiographical, because Russo intimated that it is thought to indicate a lack of imagination on the part of the writer. I thought Russo did a fairly good job of explaining differences between mere recitation of personal stories finding their way into a fiction writer’s work, and the kind of work that a good writer does with shaping and structuring experiences they have, and still being able to plausibly operate on the fictional side of the writing world. In fact, Russo mentioned that “life has no shape; shape is what we imagine and structure is what we (the writer) assign.”

Following Lipman and Russo, Michael Thomas stole the thunder on this panel. A gifted speaker, with obvious charismatic qualities, and someone that looks more like an NFL cornerback, than the stereotype of a writer, he may have the best “guns” I’ve seen on the author’s circuit.

With a recent IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in tow, for Man Gone Down, Thomas spoke about dealing with and processing memory, particularly in his context, growing up in Allston, and never feeling like he had an identity.

I haven’t read Man Gone Down, but the reviews indicate that it deals squarely with the issues of race, disillusionment, and the marginalized in America. Booklist characterized Thomas’ first work as a “rhapsodic and piercing post-9/11 lament over aggression, greed, and racism, and a ravishing blues for the soul's unending loneliness.”

Throughout his talk, Thomas dropped references to T.S. Eliot, and didn’t shy away from literary references in clarifying his thoughts, like referencing Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues in explaining his own take on the two sides of the black experience (Thomas is African-American).

I was particularly taken by his own inclination of being a “prodigal,” and how that urge was stronger for him, than to be “home,” as he phrased it.

Since the next event we planned to take in was in the same location, we just moved around the sanctuary and found a little better spot in the center and prepared to wait for Tom Perrotta, interviewing John Hodgman.

I read Perotta’s The Abstinence Teacher (which I reviewed here), and I was impressed by his ability to nail the born-again experience so well, having never gone through it in the first-person, according to interviews I’d read.
Perotta took on a persona of self-deprecation, talking and joking about his own failures to get published. Hodgman, who described himself for the audience as a “famous minor television personality,” was laugh out loud funny, and had some fun at Perotta’s expense.

The two elicited a good give and take, with Hodgman doing most of the talking. While he was funny, and didn’t stray too far from his public persona, he did spend some time speaking honestly about his own evolution as a writer, which is how he says he self-identifies.

A graduate of Yale, he initially wanted to be a short-story writer, and wrote an “exquisitely crafted short story,” which was published in the The Paris Review. He did emphasize he wrote only “one,” however.

After college, he worked as a literary agent, which while he described this experience as a “failed” one, it did lead to his column at McSweeney’s Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent, which then led to his first book, The Areas of My Expertise, his satirical almanac.

A couple of my favorite anecdotes from Hodgman; he told the audience that when he originally began writing, he didn’t think you were allowed to be funny. Once he began to understand humor, and the importance of being funny in his own writing, it opened up a wealth of opportunities, and he’s continued to ride that wave with a great deal of recent success. Hodgman in fact said that he sees humor as a “form of short story writing.”

He also described how he continues to be amazed by how often wildly successful people come up to him and want to know how to get a book published. He said it seems to be universal that almost everyone has that “one book” that they want to write before they die.

While my success as a writer/publisher is chump change when juxtaposed with Hodgman’s, but I’ve also been amazed how often other successful people warm to me when they find out I’ve written a book, as well as launched my own independent publishing company.

Hodgman concluded on an optimistic note for anyone getting started. Rather than lament the death of the book, or publishing’s dilemma, he said it’s a great time to be creative. He compared the internet to New York City, where so many writers traditionally would go to get their start in publishing. He said that there is no certain geographic place to go, today. In fact, he told one of the questioners during the Q & A session when asked for advice about getting a book published, to “move to the cheapest place you can find,” touching on his final thoughts that technology allows creative work to be done anywhere.

I didn’t have any preferences for events after Hodgman/Perrotta. Mark was interested in an afternoon panel titled, “Something Different.” The program guide mentioned that the featured authors would focus on quirky characters. The actual panel swerved slightly from that description. Jessica Anthony talked about her character, Rovar Pfliegman, a Hungarian butcher, a dwarf, who lives in a bus full of meat for sale, which seemed quirky to me.

Other panelists included Paul Trembley, author of The Little Sleep, who talked less about Mark Genevich, the South Boston PI who suffers from narcolepsy, than about his own sleep problems, and how this led to the surgical removal of his uvula.

The third panelist, R Sikoryak (real name, Robert), is a comic book artist who creates comic adaptations of classic literature. Mark and I both agreed that he was the most interesting of the three. He talked about his process, but I was particularly interested in his thoughts on taking what he considered literature, and “dumbed it down” or made it more accessible via the comic book process. His Wikipedia entry represents this as “a mashup of high and low cultures.”

The panel was hosted by Jennifer Haigh, who has won several PEN awards for her fiction. Afterwards, I glanced at several books at the author’s table, and was interested in her book, Baker Towers. I’m considering reading it, as it looks like an interesting read, detailing rise and fall of a western Pennsylvania coal town in the years following World War II, particularly given my interest in people and places, particularly small town America.

Just like at the LA Times Book Festival, I found sitting through three panels can be exhausting. Mark and I talked about whether we wanted to hit one more, or call it a day. I know that I wanted a free cup of coffee offered by Green Mountain, so I stood in a lengthy line for one. Mark headed for the book tent in the square where The Book Symposium was offering books for $1.00 each.

I got my cup of coffee, and Mark made off with 20 books for $20. We then headed for the car, with plans to check out Tavolo, in Dorchester. Since we hadn’t eaten anything more than an ice cream sample since breakfast, Italian food sounded great. After a great meal at an eatery I’ll definitely visit again, we hit the highway, bound for Providence, where Mark is enrolled in Brown’s MFA program for fiction writers.

My wife, Mary, had packed a tote bag of things for Mark, and he had requested that I bring a pair of boots, and his winter jacket to Boston. I had offered to drive him back earlier in the week when we spoke. I used the guise that it would be too difficult to schlep all this stuff back on the commuter train. Mainly, I was looking forward to conversation with my son that I miss, now that he’s grown up and on his own. I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Our 45 minute trip was filled with talk about writing, mainly the craft. Mark is leading a workshop for fellow writers next week. He was interested in “dry periods” for writers, and asked me about my own experiences. Just like the bond that we once shared via baseball, we now have a different kind of connection with books and writing. I also played some songs off my new Joel Plaskett CD for him, sharing my appreciation for the Canadian singer-songwriter.

Then, I headed for home, slogging through moderate to heavy rain on my three hour journey back to Maine.

We have plans to do it all again next year.

[Early morning at the Boston Book Festival]

[A MFA student can never have too many books]

[Book crowd enjoying some blues courtesy of Berklee student musicians]


Friday, October 23, 2009

Books in the Hub-Boston Book Festival 2009

I'm excited to be headed off to Boston, tomorrow, for this year's Boston Book Festival. Actually, the festivities kick off tonight, in Copley Square, with Boston Out Loud. This is the opening night event when Boston's beautiful and important will come out.

I'll be joining the hoi polloi, tomorrow, from 10:00 to 6:00, attending events with authors the likes of Tom Perrotta, Richard Russo, Cornel West, and many others (including Alicia Silverstone, who I am not planning to see). Actually, if Boston's festival is like the one I attending in Los Angeles, back in April, the authors I tend to favor will have events that I should be able to get into. The celebrity writers, like Silverstone, will have events that are mobbed and impossible to get into.

I will attend Perrotta's event, where he'll be interviewing John Hodgman, resident expert on The Daily Show, which may attract a larger crowd, since if you are on TV, then that automatically makes you semi-important. I'd have preferred Perrotta in a setting where he was talking about his own books, as well as discussing craft. Oh well.

This is only my second such festival event celebrating the written word, and I plan on putting up a post afterwards, capturing my thoughts and observations on the day.

Oh, yes--I will be accompanied by Mr. Everyday Yeah, who is now part of the literati, MFA student and administrator of the Official Brown MFA Blog #1.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Inspired, or disciplined?

Are writers born, or can one attend to, and develop their craft through toil and perserverance? That seems to be an age-old debate that continues to rage in writing circles.

Glimmer Train, a great literary publication featuring many new voices, sends out their magazine on a quarterly basis, and includes Writers Ask, along with it. Writers Ask deals with many of the craft aspects of writing, and it has always been a favorite of mine for advice on bettering myself as a writer.

I happened to be perusing an older issue (#42, Winter 2008), which discussed the topic of inspiration vs. discipline. The commentary and back and forth between the GT writers and the writers interviewed seemed to be split between a sense that a skilled writer had some inherent ability, but there was an obvious nod to the understanding that work ethic was also important.

Here are a few highlights from the issue:

Jay McInerney (interviewed by Victoria Blake)-

I used to idealize those people who made it seem all the work of inspiration, who seemed not so much to work as to channel the muses....I was wrong to imagine literature is a divine gift. A career of writing entails a lot of hard work, but if it were only a question of hard work, then anybody with enough of a work ethic who's ever enrolled in a creative-writing course would presumably be Phillip Roth. Whether it's ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration, I don't know. The predisposition and the innate talent can't be willed into existence. I think Jane Austen was in some sense was born Jane Austen.

Mark Winegardner (interviewed by Robert Birnbaum)-

If they (aspiring writers) have no talent, no matter what their work ethic is they will recognize that their talents lie elsewhere.

This is my twentieth year teaching...the most talented undergraduates, you can write them off. They'll never be writers. They don't have a chance. They are freaked out that they just did it. People who are brilliant at nineteen freak out. They don't know what to do with that, "How'd I do that? I don't know." And also, early praise is damaging. We live in a culture that thinks the entire country is above average. C is a bad grade now. C is what F used to be. So everybody gets this fatuous early praise and it ruins everybody who receives it. So they are all destroyed by it. People who are a little further along, blossoming later, even then I would bet on the person who shows up at the computer every morning, rather than the one who has a world of talent and no discipline.

So there you have it. Talent matters, but working at your craft cannot be overemphasized. I've touched on this in the past, referencing Stephen King's excellent book, On Writing.

If you want to be a writer, then you need to write. It's a simple fact, but one that many wannabe writers seem to miss.