Tag: fiction

My new short fiction piece is published

Topology Magazine published a short piece of mine today called “Water.”

You can read it here.

Please bear in mind that it is mostly fictional with few details that actually happened. However, it does accurately describe our family about 6-8 years ago when things were very tight financially.

The theme of the current Topology issue is “Thriftiness.” I recommend subscribing to anyone interested.

Two new items

NIEAseal-2014-Finalist-200This was an eventful week for The Former Hero with two significant pieces of news. First, I received notice that I was a finalist in the National Indie Excellence Award in the genre of Thriller (alas, they don’t have a category for “Speculative, Psychological, New adult, Multi-Genre, Literary Thriller.”)

As you can tell by the name, this contest is a national one, which means I must have been up against a lot of other contestants. I am very honored to have placed as a finalist.

ERB-logo-Color-SmallThe second event is the publication of a review by Alicia Smock on the Englewood Review of Books. Am I allowed to even quote this? Smock calls the book a “philosophical masterpiece.” [turns red, kicks the sand].

3 Days in Rome: on borrowing the lives of others for your fiction

There is a running joke among authors. “Lookout, or I’ll write you into one of my stories! Ha ha!”

I said it’s a joke. But for many authors it’s no joke.writer1

On October 19, 1998, The Author’s Guild held a panel discussion titled “Whose life is it anyway?” There were four panelists who addressed the topic of authors appropriating the lives and experiences of others in their writing. As Wendell Berry described it in his book Life is a Miracle, “the conversation is illustrative of the problem of freedom.” But I would go farther than that.

Three of the four panelists agreed that fiction writers must have total freedom to write absolutely anything, including stories that harm others. One panelist said,

“I could not imagine that fiction might not be an arena of total freedom…Life becomes real only through having been written…Inevitably, writers are responsible for wounds and hurts—but the writer must say, I don’t care, I don’t give a damn…”

Aside from the fact that the sentence ‘Life becomes real only through having been written‘ is a completely baffling statement, I find this quote somewhat threatening. What if some writer set me as their target? It would seem that no one is safe.

There may be some readers who are in sympathy with the statement. We can’t give in to censorship, even self-censorship, you might say. It could start to sound like authorial cowardice, like a writer didn’t have the bravery to write a real masterpiece, complete with controversy, and therefore their art lacked the real power that comes from honesty. Is that you? Let’s read on.

Another panelist approvingly offered the following quote: “For every writer it is a rite of passage to write the story after which a member of your family will no longer speak to you.” He then stated his personal credo, “I say anything goes in fiction—anything goes. If you start to take away bit by bit the rights of writers doing what they want, what you end up eroding is your own freedom.”

Now we have moved beyond threatening to gratuitous. I think I understand his intention, but the statement lacks any hit of nuance. Can he really mean this? If he really means what he says, to the full extent that he seems to mean it—that a writer’s friends and family are fair game—then the writer is a loose cannon, a persona non grata to the rest of society, a voyeur, a thief,  and a tyrant. One wonders, how far would this guy go? Would he proceed, one by one, to crush family members and friends until he was completely isolated but for the adulation of the anonymous masses of readers? Is the necessary freedom of fiction worth that ultimate price? Because really, you could make a great story out of anyone.

I’m going on record and say that writers should not base any character on anyone who would recognize themselves in the character without that person’s explicit permission. And even THEN it might be better judgement not to use the person. A fiction writer (excluding satirists here) should still live in the context of human community. Maybe your Uncle Frank is a goldmine of craziness. That divorce, the fist fights, the coke, and <gasp!> that trip to Thailand! Maybe he is a messed up, sociopath with a police record for child porn. But he is your mother’s brother, and she still loves him. He did come to your book launch, after all. And he mentioned your book on Facebook, several times.

Don’t do it. Don’t write Uncle Frank in any way that he would remotely recognize. For Uncle Frank’s sake, for your mother’s sake. And for your own soul’s sake.

This is not to say what should be obvious: that obviously writers draw from their own experience and from things they see and hear, perhaps even in the lives of friends and family. We can only write what we know, as the saying goes, and frequently life provides the most authentic and interesting material. The writers endeavor is to show readers something true, something beautiful, something real. But if that means writers can take the private, intimate experiences of others and say, “Hey! Look at my art! Look how messed up my cousin’s family is! It’s real! It’s authentic!” then that writer is little more than a cowardly, uncreative gossip, or worse, someone trying to get money and fame from selling gossip.

And we are not talking about “eroding your own freedom.” I am talking about voluntary self-restraint for the sake of intimacy, blood relations, honor, and humanity. It may be legal in the United States to write a family member’s dirty laundry into a book. As long as you don’t name names, you can probably avoid a charge of libel. No one is talking about laws for authorial censorship. I am saying, no story is so important that betrayal of friends or family justifies it.

I am talking about a Code of Ethics for writers. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. It could be short: don’t destroy people with your writing, don’t plagiarize. There may be others.

An example of the betrayal of having one’s experiences written down and published can be seen in one of Sheryl Crow’s songs. Apparently, she had a 3-day romantic experience in Rome with a writer who believed in this principle. On her 1996 self-titled album there was a song called “The Book” that contained the following lyrics:

I read your book

And I find it strange

That I know that girl

And I know her world

A little too well


I didn’t know

By giving my hand

That I would be written down

Sliced around

Passed down

Among strangers hands


Three days in RomeSheryl_Crow

Where do we go

I’ll always remember

Three days in Rome

Never again

Would I see your face

You carry a pen and a paper

And no time and no words you waste


You’re a voyeur

The worst kind of thief

To take what happened to us

To write down everything

That went on between you and me


Three days in Rome

And I stand alone

I’ll always remember

Three days in Rome

The final panelist, Janna Malamoud Smith, said the following:

“When rationalizing the exposure of others, writers tend to claim two values as having overriding worth. One is the aesthetic goal of telling the story well. There’s often a feeling that writing beautifully is an ultimate good, that telling a tale very well compensates any harm it might do to its subjects. The second virtue writers tend to honor is outing the truth. We take seriously the job of looking beyond hypocrisy and social facade….We like to believe there is a version of the truth that is superior and that we can state it….[But] when the private things intimacy has allowed you to expose are suddenly made public, that is a legitimate reason for a feeling of profound betrayal….Betrayals are a real thing.”

pengunWriters perhaps more than any other are given to romanticizing of their own profession. We see ourselves as freedom fighters, pioneers, guardians of free speech. We can romanticize our plight and the plight that will come to humanity by any hint of gagging or restraint. We can cry “censorship!” In Smith’s words, we can see our project as an “ultimate good.”

But as in many things, your freedom to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose. In the United States, Free Speech has never meant unlimited verbal license. You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. You cannot advocate the overthrow of the government. You cannot print falsehood about someone else in the paper. There are laws about libel. There is such a thing as slander, lying, and verbal abuse. Free speech is not absolute.

Writing details from others lives and experiences does not necessarily entail betrayal or slander of that person. A half-way decent writer can sufficiently conceal identities. He could change Uncle Frank into a City Councilwoman. I don’t need to go into how to do that here.

I say to my fellow writers, if you can’t come up with original material without violating trust, if you can’t write with a conscience,  if you can’t contribute something good and noble and true, then for the sake of us all, find another trade.

All Things Vile and Vicious

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

An interesting thing happens to many writers the first time they write a story with foul language, erotic scenes, butcher knives dripping with blood, or characters with twisted psychologies: they have to show their story to their mothers.

Family and friends have expressed all varieties of horror and revulsion at some of my stories. The sex was too explicit, the obscenities too strong, the imagery too grotesque. Upon reading my novel, my mother speculated that I was in a state of depression. (She’s since changed her mind.)

It may be a question that primarily conservative Christian writers struggle with: is it OK to include these things in fiction? I want to suggest a way forward, and God himself is our example.

kittenWhat do we make of the fact that the God, whose grace is amazing, whose love is like a fountain, and whose mercies are new every morning, also created tigers—majestic and spectacularly-engineered killing machines, shockingly efficient at ripping up other creatures?

Consider that the God who made bunnies and kittens also made jackals and warthogs. He who rejoices over his people with singing, who we call “Abba, Father” also called forth, in the splendor of his creative expression, vultures, tapeworms and cobra venom.

The Bible says to imitate God. Can artists imitate God’s audacity in their creative expression?

Imagine for a moment that you set out to create a bunch of new animal life by the word of your power. You create thousands of species. You are yourself: a normal, churchgoer in muted earth tones and sandals. You try to love your neighbor. You attend a D-group (or whatever) almost fifty percent of the time. You make hard ethical decisions in your workplace. You are washed in the blood.


Australian Mouse Spider

You are also an omnipotent creator of animal life, and you want to make creatures that you think will honor God, the way any Christian artist thinks about his art.

Would you, in the highest outpouring of your sanctified artistic muse, ever create an animal with the eyes and hair and fangs of an Australian mouse spider? Or the panic-inducing horror of a death stalker scorpion? Or one of those freakish, toothy deep-sea fishes?

More to the point, would you artfully fashion hideous and deadly beasts to offer up as the work of your hands before the throne of grace, tokens of your love and gratitude?

dogIt’s easy to see God’s nature mirrored in our dogs and cats. I have reflected many times on the symmetry between my relationship to my dogs Beans and Miller, and God’s relationship to me.

But when I see those close-up photos of a fly or a wasp, those eyes like huge, convex screens of red Kevlar, the mechanical segmented body, thorny legs, a tubular, organic proboscis, I realize: If God made this, then I don’t know God as well as I thought I did.

It’s a common experience for writers to fear that writing shocking or scandalous material will cause their friends and family to worry about them. “Oh, come on, Jeffrey. Do you really need to drag us through that? Why can’t your story be more uplifting? Life is ugly enough.”

But our own theology of creation helps us here. Which of us is honest enough to look at a shark, its multiple rows of serrated teeth perfect for obliterating just about any creature under the sea, and then say, “Gee, Lord. That’s not very loving. What happened to the grace, man?” Which of us would say to God, “Come on now, Lord. Life is ugly enough without creating such creatures. Don’t you want us to be happy and joyful? Why put us on the same planet with venomous biting things?”

I have heard people appeal that predatory behavior is the result of The Fall in Genesis 3. Meat-eating, they say, is part of God’s curse on the earth. Lions and hyenas and vultures were herbivores before The Fall.DeepSeaFish

But I don’t buy it. That’s not what the Bible says. Plus it’s totally lame. God made ferocious animals as they are, claws, teeth, stingers and all, and Psalm 19 is clear. Sharks and fire ants declare the glory of the Lord.

Most of Christian devotional culture today focuses on the loving, forgiving, passionate-lover, mighty-healer, cuddly-father side. But I think a little reflection on some of these decidedly non-cuddly animals may reveal a certain lack of depth of this vision of God. Is this the same God who made such vicious and revolting creatures?

So, artists and writers…

this gives us boldness to explore the hideous, the erotic, and even the blasphemous in us own work. The Biblical itself contains blasphemy coming from the mouth of Job. I’m not saying a latrine on the wall is art, but I am saying that a song about drug addiction or fantastic sex might be. And as a viewer of art, the diversity of God’s own creative palette teaches me to engage and appreciate expressions of culture that are not necessarily to my taste. Perhaps that’s very postmodern of me. But hey, God made naked mole rats and monkfish as well as arabian horses and bald eagles. And he said it was all “very good.”

Conclusion of The Heart in Conflict with Itself

We are trying to understand what William Faulkner meant when he said that all good writing was born of “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”

I suggested that such a statement requires the existence of some notion of a soul. And it’s no good pointing to plants animals or the wind as somehow endowed with the same meaning, the same drama, the same depth of inner conflict, because this is simply us projecting our human experience on object of nature which we may love very much.

So here we go.

I submit that by “the heart” Faulkner is referring to the deepest inner aspect of a person. And to be in conflict with itself suggests that the one heart has two aspects, two “knowledges”, two separate grasps of reality and of self. The first is an ideal heart, with a certain sort of perfection, and the other is the heart of the everyday self. One is the heart that knows bravery, honor, reason, love, trustworthiness and all virtues. The other heart operates mainly out of some appetite – it wants pleasure, peace, control, homage, security.

Faulkner is insinuating that there are dual principles battling for mastery of the human, and each have their moments of control. Occasionally we obey a call to serve The Good (a thing outside of us): the need of a loved one, a noble cause, justice, exposure of some falsehood. This side tends to be based on the rational, the divine spark within all humanity, the thing that separates us from the animals.

And other times we obey our appetites, the thing inside: hunger, lust, what we are owed, our protection. This side tends to be based on an instinctual impulse, the animal side.
And here you have the classic quest for humanity to rise above those animal passions still dwelling inside, and live according to the higher principal that we possess.

The heart in conflict with itself happens when these two principals smash up against each other. The higher human principal vs. the animal principal. Rational vs. instinctual. Spiritual vs. material. Even freedom vs. slavery, if you will.

And this is why I say that understanding this phrase necessitates the notion of a soul which is the container of the ideal, the seat where the knowledge of The Good abides. I maintain that everyone has this as a part of human nature, though it is possible to suppress to such an extent that it is for all purposes lost.

Now. Back to good writing. The best writing, says Faulkner, is in those books that take the reader into the midst of such a contest of hearts as it battles in the soul of the characters. And this is what makes his fiction so stunning – the way he lays out messed-up people – freaks really – and messy relationships, brokenness, all dripping with the particular problems of the 1930’s South. He is so good at it in fact, that his fiction is inaccessible to some.

If you are used to Nicholas Sparks and are wondering if you should read a Faulkner novel, the answer is ‘yes,’ but please email me first. Or at least prepare yourself with some back reading.

The heart in conflict with itself may take the form of insanity. It may take the form of incest. It may take the form of prejudice. It may take the form of addiction. Some of these are factors beyond our control, which adds even more dimension. It may not just be a struggle of The Will, it may be a battle in which the odds are completely against the ideal, as in the case of insanity or addiction, where reason is compromised and cannot even enter the fight. The battle may be further complicated by societal forces, such as social rank, prejudice or politics.

I suppose the most ragged edge of the heart in conflict with itself is involved in what a character thinks about God. Does it love some false notion of God, or does it create its own God. It may insist there is no God. It may be in a fierce battle with God, as in Moby Dick, Jude the Obscure or the Greek myth of Prometheus (not the movie).

But in each of these cases, the heart can only be in conflict with itself…IF there is such a thing as an ideal principal, which is what we can call a soul.

If there is no soul, then Faulkner’s phase is either meaningless, or is reduced to an much less interesting chemical or organic reaction. The badger choosing to dig the hole.

Two Women

Two women worked in a field. One was very diligent. The other took frequent breaks and was considered a bad laborer.

The diligent woman was praised by everyone. She gained a reputation with the farm owners and in the markets. But the other woman had only a few unhealthy friends. By her hard work, the diligent woman raised her standard of living. She moved into a bigger house in a quiet suburb and bought many fine things to enjoy. She bought a 55″ television and she would fall asleep in front of it every evening after a hearty and nutritious dinner.

The diligent woman developed new ways to increase her production, and her eyes stayed fixed on the work of her hands. The other woman was easily distracted by the birds and the clouds which took the shapes of elephants and sailboats. She had to stand up frequently and stretch her sore back, and she would stand stretching and watch as a cyclist rode by. She would always interrupt her work if music could be heard, either from the nearby school, or church or even a whistler out on a walk. One day, a traveler passed by. He had returned from a poor land and told stories about how thin the children were there. “Here,” she said, “here’s a hundred dollars. Buy the children some food next time you go there.” “Idiot,” shouted the other woman from across the field, not raising her eyes. “You’ll never see that money again. And neither will any hungry children!”

There were times in the day when the diligent woman was alone in the field. She was already there working when the other woman arrived, and she stayed after quitting time, into the dark almost every day. She had developed a frame of lights that strapped to her forehead and shoulders, and it was as bright as daylight beneath her lamps. She only stopped to reload an energy drink into a backpack with a tube that she gripped in her teeth. She drove to work in a black vehicle and she wore a stylish black exercise outfit made of advanced material, with pink stripes down the side of the legs.

The distracted woman wore the same cotton slacks and apron every day, and a floppy straw hat with a ribbon around it. Twice a day she would fold out a three-legged stool and she would eat carrots and celery and watch the migration of the birds. When Daylight Saving Time was in effect, the diligent woman scoffed at her because she left while there was still three hours of sunlight left, but she replied that she just wanted a cup of tea or perhaps something stronger. She was thin, even without going to the Pilates class that the other woman attended.

One day in the field, she glanced up at the angle of the sun and saw it was time for a break. She opened her little food satchel and started fixing some saltines and cheese whiz. “There’s supposed to be a big storm coming through,” she said to the other woman, loud enough to be heard across the field. The diligent woman bustled more fervently as if to silently retort that the distracted woman had better worry about the financial storm that was going to overtake her soon. In the mid-afternoon, the distracted woman had another break and turned her face into the cool wind, and she ate her saltines and drank grape juice from a box. She saw clouds building in the northwest and instead of returning to work after her break, she sat and watched. The clouds came closer and were a foreboding gray-blue color. She noticed the birds had stopped singing, and wind was changing. She picked up her stool and skipped away toward her bicycle, and she shouted to the other woman, “We’d better get inside. A storm’s coming!”  But the diligent woman never raised her eyes. “Well, now,” she thought, “I can work in a cool shade for a change. It’s not a storm, just a more pleasant work environment. Thank heaven for the clouds.”

When the rain started, the diligent woman said to herself, “The cool rain! Let it come. It will pass through as it always does; but I will certainly not let it interfere with my goals.” The storm grew stronger and she determined to ignore it. And at last a tornado came and carried her away, and she never raised her eyes from her work. She continued looking at the fields and the work of her hands, even as the field turned and receded from her view, and the storm lifted her into the sky.

And the distracted woman trembled in the dry storm shelter, and pitied the diligent woman, sitting in safety among the other distracted folk who had seen the storm coming.

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