Taran Wanderer

As a child I was a big fan of the Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, and must have read them three times through — the last time when I was fifteen or so. For some reason though I went back and re-read a lot of childhood favorites, I was reluctant to re-read these, partly because fantasy series were few and far between and felt novel when I was a kid; now there is so much of it that follows the same design as Prydain (the well-trodden hero’s journey) I thought I might be annoyed by it even though he did it first (or firstishly).

However, once I did dive in I was hooked. Lloyd Alexander has complex characters and a whimsical sense of humor that makes these book transcend most epic fantasy and subverts the usual expectations for chosen-hero-fulfills-destiny type tales. In fact, Alexander admits in one of the forewords that it wasn’t until halfway through the series that he brushed up his Joseph Campbell so he could bring it around to a satisfactory conclusion — and says so almost apologetically, since it means drifting from the impulsive plot turns that make the first three books so delightful.

Taran WandererThis brings me to Taran Wanderer, which is the fourth in the series. There is a rather typical-for-Prydain beginning, with an evil wizard getting bested by Taran’s quick wits and good luck, but the book then turns into a longish, episodic, and mostly realistic series of experiences as Taran searches for himself: he seeks both knowledge of his parents (growing up as a foundling and presumably an orphan) and of his calling. In the latter ambition he takes up farming, pottery, weaving, and smithing with a series of mentors, becomes passably good at each but decides it is not for him, and then (after a somewhat unlimactic, or at least unresolved, battle with a minor villain), sets back for home with no more answers than he had before, but with fewer questions as testament to his new wisdom.

Sound boring? As a kid I dreaded the second half of the book and may have skipped it on one of my read-throughs. This time, as a grown reader who has put some thought into the interior lives of characters, I was absolutely in awe of the care Alexander takes in shaping Taran’s inner life and the man he is becoming.

I now see the peculiar design of the book as brilliant. The first, more comic and adventurous half of the book involves a series of encounters with powerful men like kings and wizards; the second half with laborers and craftsmen. I see how each of the characters in the first half represents a kind of superficial virtue like ambition, glory, the desire to be loved, or the desire to be feared. The second half exposes Taran to deeper virtues like resiliance and hard work, patience and discipline.

It’s not as preachy as it sounds, though the relatively quieter passages without the humor and adventure found earlier in the series might test immature readers (like it did my boy self). I’d now put it on a short-list with books like Hatchet and The Midnight Fox on my coming-of-age canon, and it’s the first fantasy book I’ve put there. Usually in such books the heroic calling substitutes for growing up.

Snail Mail

Would anyone like to strike up a snail mail style correspondence? I miss writing and receiving letters in the mail, and feel like something’s been lost there that hasn’t been replaced by email or Facebook messenger. As a college student and shortly after graduating I wrote tons of letters and felt like I would develop a classic correspondence, the kind that Melville had with Hawthorne, with some of my witty pals. Of course I also that I would have a Melville/Hawthorne-style writing career and beard, but…  Well, adult life is filled with corrections to your expectations.

What I didn’t expect is for email to completely end letter-writing almost in a day. I got that bitnet email address in 1993 and it was all over for letters. Then Facebook mostly killed email and I guess in a few years we’ll be like ha ha, that person still uses Facebook, while we cyberface or whatever we’ll be doing by then.

Anyway, letters. Yeah. Send me one and I’ll send you one. Leave a message below to get my address. You must use a valid email address in your comment so I can tell you my home address. If we’ve ever met in person or kinda know each other, that’s great, but I also welcome readers and other friends I haven’t met.

 

Q & A

A kid keeps asking me a question via this website and my replies get bounced back due to an invalid email address.

So, Trent, if you’re out there, I was born in November 1968. I won’t give the exact date because leaking too much personal info over time on the Internet is a bad idea. Hope that is enough!

Hope everyone else is having a good day!

When “We” Lose “Our” Mothers

Five years ago today, early in the morning, I got a phone call — I think it was my brother who called first, but there were a lot of calls that day and it blurs. My mother’s house was on fire and a neighbor had described the bedroom as “blazing.” I also can’t remember if the fire was still smoldering when we got the call. Since we hadn’t heard from my mother we assumed she was dead, but it would take all day to confirm it.

This was both an expected and unexpected event. In fact, we’d gotten many calls from neighbors, from police, and from hospitals, over the years. Any time I saw a 701 area code I had to brace myself before answering the phone, especially when the call came at a strange hour. They always informed us that our mother had been arrested for DWI and committed to 72 hours of rehab, or had fallen down the stairs and committed to 72 hours of rehab, or had somehow otherwise brought brief intervention into her long descent into alcoholism and dementia. The police and medical professionals gave us the info dutifully; they probably made such calls often enough. Sometimes neighbors would give the info with heart-breaking circumlocution… as if we were completely ignorant of the situation and they were telling us for the first time and needed to break it to us gently. At times I felt judged: how could a grown man let his poor mother totter drunkenly about the house by herself?

People without addicts in their lives probably have little understanding of the incredible difficulties of intervention. TV movies tend not to dwell on the legal and logistical hurdles, the high costs of trying to commit someone against their will to a rehab clinic even before you pay the clinic. They don’t show a situation where a woman would hurl plates at police officers and have to be physically subdued, dragged literally kicking and screaming into treatment, and then simply count days until it’s time to leave and drink again. Maybe I’m trying to let myself off the hook here because I did nothing. I wanted nothing but distance since the day I left the home. I made occasional phone calls, happy to find my mother merely incoherent and rambling instead of raging, and made excuses not to visit. We went through great pains to bring her to our wedding, five years before she died, and I only saw her once more on a trip I took to Grand Forks later that year for work.

On that last visit I met her at the door because I hated to see the inside of the house: too many messes and broken things which I didn’t have time or resources to tend to. She was pretty lucid that day. I took her to Hugo’s Grocery. By that time she had constant vertigo and used a walker, but on our trip through the store she left it behind and let me guide her through the aisles, clutching my arm with a trembling and claw-like hand. She was a weak woman but she had a strong grip: all those years of typing on a typewriter. I left her on the doorstep, and that was the last time I saw her. Unlike the way these stories generally go, I absolutely suspected it might be the last time, even though she hung on for another four years.

When people write about grieving for late parents or memories of moms they rarely consider the possibility that the reader is someone with a story like mine. They tend to write in broad, generous terms about what “our” mothers mean to “us,” or what “you” go through.

“We’re left to wander back into the world, where everything looks the same, but for us, every movement and every breath feels weighted down by this suffocating cloud of sadness,” David Ferguson writes in an essay I saw shared a dozen times on Facebook. “We,” is he and all the people who have uncomplicated relationships with their mothers; those who were not abused or neglected, who did not see their mothers succumb to addiction, who were never lashed at with a metal ruler, who never mopped their mother’s gray vomit off the bathroom floor, who were never humiliated by having mom stumble out of the bedroom at 3:00 in the afternoon, already lit, when we brought friends over, who were never roused from sleep at 2:00 in the morning with a rambling tirade. I certainly don’t begrudge Ferguson his grief or his fond memories of Mom, but I do wish the first person plural weren’t invoked with such authority. It’s one thing to assume your experience is normal, another to presume it is universal.

For me, “losing” my mother was gradual, an erosion over decades with a lot of ugliness, too ugly for a TV movie, too harrowing even for a Eugene O’Neill play. I did not feel suffocating clouds of sadness when she died, but liberated, released from guilt, relieved that it was finally over. People like my brothers and I don’t get to mark these anniversaries with warm sentiment. I wish I could say something like, “Mom died five years ago. I miss her every day.” But this wouldn’t be true, and this is all I’ve got. “Mom died five years ago. I’m glad her soul is at rest.”

 

 

Prince Gave Me Great Writing Advice In a Dream

Well, obviously you know that Prince the funky purple music icon passed away last week. As a Minneapolitan and a child of the 1980s I reeled a bit from his death and like many people went into an a long weekend of digging out the old CDs and listening to them weepily.

I credit that listening binge for a dream I had last night where Prince appeared while revising my book (this baseball/bee one). I’d been working on it all weekend, and was doing so in the dream. Prince read over my shoulder and asked “What do you want the reader to feel right here? What do you want the reader to feel right here?” He was both frustrated and encouraging.

It’s some of the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten. I spend all this time worrying about plot structure, moving characters from point A to point B, the three-act play, the drops and rises in action (which needs special work on this draft). I had never thought purely about feeling in a book, scene by scene and passage by passage. Charting emotional goals like plot points: I want the reader to laugh here, to cry here, to feel nervous here, to be angry here.

My books have culminated in emotional moments, but they are slow-building, and come as a natural consequence of the story. But leave it to Prince, whose music was always a tapestry of intense feeling, to focus my attention on those emotional goals for the reader throughout.

I’m taking this with me as I continue. Thank you, dream Prince. I hope to see you again.

Prince writing advice

Against Randism

Middle-grade author Mike Jung was recently on an AWP panel about diversity in children’s book publishing and said:

[C]raft is about more than just pure mechanics… Craft is inextricably linked to socio-political belief, self-understanding, cultural understanding, and the historical scaffolding upon which our society has been built.

I admit I didn’t know what to make of this the first time I saw it because I was trying to sort out how overuse of adverbs (for example) had anything to do with a sociopolitical belief. But after thinking it through, I can see how any aspect of craft from word choice to point of view (first person? third person?) can be mapped to conscious or subconscious sociopolitical beliefs. E.g., first person became popular at a time when self-hood was more in vogue. The purple prose of the late 19th Century conveyed the erudition of the literary elite. The development of “believable” or “relatable” characters comprises a host of sociopolitical assumptions.

One of the more transparent connections is  the interrelation of character and theme. When a writer has a message, it’s all too easy to create flat characters to make the point. Good guys fight for the good thing against bad guys who fight for the bad thing. The good guys are charismatic and varied and the bad guys are ugly and indistinct. The consequences are explicitly sociopolitical and for me represent one of the worst artistic failings.

atlas-shrugged-book-cover-175x300For me the best representation of this habit is Ayn Rand, who wrote political arguments in the shape of novels with tall, smart, beautiful characters espousing her ideology and a slew of badly-complected, shamelessly corrupt, stupid characters opposing them. You rarely see a scene with such a character without passing description of the puffiness of his neck or spittle gathering at the corners of his mouth. Forget her politics. It’s lousy writing. It’s bad fiction. Her character development is utterly lazy and incompetent!

Remember the Seinfeld episode where his dentist (played by Walter White!) converts to Judaism so he can tell anti-Semitic jokes? “This offends you as a Jewish person?” a priest asks Jerry. “No, it offends me as a comedian!” he retorts. While Rand’s politics are simplistic and self serving, she doesn’t offend me as a human, she offends me as a writer.

The most compelling characters to me are morally ambiguous. I like Han Solo (he killed a guy to avoid a debt, remember?), Gollum, and Snape. Reading The Black Cauldron with Byron, I’m utterly taken with Prince Ellidyr, who is brash and offensive and keeps saving people’s lives then reminding them that the life he saved has little value to him. Byron, being five, is less comfortable with such ambiguity. “How come a bad guy is riding with the good guys?” He wonders. “Because it’s a good book,” I tell him. (So yes, I believe in good books and bad books with more certainty than good guys and bad guys.)

And ultimately that is both an ideological and aesthetic value, to see things as complicated and nuanced and wanting books (even fantastic ones) to convey the uncertainties and moral struggles that come with life. To own that even this comes from a sociopolitical and historic context, call it the abject confusion of early 21st Century straight white male, knowing all the ways one can go wrong, and seeing nothing manifestly evil to rail against that isn’t encoded in his own DNA.

I recently read an article (old, pre-Harry-Potter) about the tendency for “weightier” children’s books to win awards and critical favor, whether epic fantasy or the then-popular “problem novel.” The critic, Deborah Stevenson, unites books across genres with the dichotomy of “heroic” vs. “everyday,” using Ramona as representative of the later set (why do you think someone sent it to me?) It teases out an idea I’d had that books were trending away from Ramonaism and toward Harryism and gives a vocabulary to that distinction. Both realistic and fantastic books can be certain in a way I don’t care for, and heroic feels like a value-neutral way of describing them. Everyday represents another idea: that one’s struggles are interior and exist within a non-epic backdrop of people who are all plodding along with the same struggles. It’s a spectrum, not a dichotomy, but I think heroism can give way to Randism. Chronicling the everyday represents another strategy: this is not universal truth, a writer says, but it is true for this character. There are dangers there too, of relativism, of navel-gazing, of being boring. But I think being mindful of it, to challenge oneself to see others (and portray them) as complex and multifaceted, to accept yourself as your own antagonist, leads to richer books and wiser writers. 

 

 

Sib ntsib dua

Every day since he’s started preschool, my son has demanded that I see him all the way to the classroom.  About once a week I’ve suggested I let him off at the front door to the school, in the foyer, or at the first or second turn in the hallway. He shot down those suggestions with a “no,” and a shake of his head, every time. I would see him to the classroom door and set a symbolic toe across the threshold. He would say “Sib ntsib dua,” (“Sisidua,” out of his mouth),  which means goodbye in Hmong. I would say it back.

Yesterday as we strolled in he looked at the wet sidewalk and wondered why there weren’t any worms, remembering a time last fall when the path was littered with them after a rain. I shrugged and said I didn’t know. Then he stopped.

“Dad, I think we can start saying sib ntsib dua at the door.”

“You mean right here?”

“Yeah.”

So we stood just outside the door and he said “Sib ntsib dua” and I said it back. He said “I love you” and I said “I love you.” He said “Have a fun day at work,” and I said “Have a fun day at school.” As I walk back up the path he’s still standing and holding the door open. I don’t look back because that’s a huge part of parenting.