Monday, May 21, 2018

Cyberflanerie: Noteworthy Blogs of Late & More

Holding the Light: Pat Dubrava's luminous essay, Not Even the Trees.

Rose Mary Salum, Mexican poet, novelist, essayist and editor of Literal ponders #MeToo.

Mr. Money Mustache reveals his breakfast, among other things.

Low Tech Magazine:  Ditch the Batteries and History and Future of the Compressed Air Economy.

Granola Shotgun on Thousand Oaks. I was struck by the comment by host Johnny (in reply to Here in Van Nuys):
"I’ve come to the conclusion that fretting over aesthetics (like the abundant use of synthetic grass lawns and Lee Press-On faux facades) isn’t a productive use of my energies. Neither is kvetching about regulations or other people’s attitudes about… anything. Let it go.
"Focus on the underlying structural dynamics. Some places are well suited to change and will ride out future dynamics better than most. Others are destined to decline rapidly under the best of circumstances. Thousand Oaks will endure for quite some time because the people who live there have political authority and money to buffer themselves fro quite a lot. It’s a good place. It’s just not my place."
Here in Van Nuys on The Parking Police. This is a blog I've been following regularly. I am seeing some of these very same issues in northern California, where I have family, and as a novelist-sociologist (all novelists are sociologists) and ex-economist (yes, I used to be an economist) I find them fascinating. It's a grim portrait of place at times. But such is our societal and fiscal trajectory. And I want to get my mind around it.

Black Liszt: David Black talks about Innovation Stories in his new book.

Typewriter Revolution: I am honored that Richard Polt dedicates the poem "Vanilla" to Yours Truly. (I am back to typing on a typewriter again, now that I have another Hermes, an Hermes Baby, circa 1960s.) I got the dedication because I supplied the word as a prompt. Funny, I thought of "vanilla" as exotic and spicy-- I forgot, having lived in Mexico so many years, where vanilla is a sharply delicious flavor, and vanilla icecream packs some zing, its connotations of blah north of the border. (P.S. With his typewriter advocacy, Polt, a noted professor of philosophy and expert on Heidegger, is doing something far more interesting than it might appear at first glance.)

Cal Newport shares his morning routine with Business Insider. His blog is here.

The Archdruid has suggested that his readers try a secret experiment.



David J. Silverman gives an interview to Ben Franklin's World podcast about Thundersticks. This is a brilliant, important book.


A signal of a cultural tide turning: Rebecca Solnit's essay in this month's issue of Harper's, Driven to Distraction.

Fodder for another blog post: I recently took out a batch of print magazine subscriptions, so as to spend less time on the iPad. So far so good-- and if not for my Harper's subscription, I would have missed Solnit's essay. But I treasure the blogosphere. As a writer I love the freedom and speed; as a reader, I relish the adventures with unique, unfiltered voices and their sometimes fabulous, sometimes squirrely, othertimes, whoa, too-way-out-for-prime-time ideas and information.

>>Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Blast Past Easy: A Permutation Exercise with Clichés

As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.

Yes, this was on my bookshelf and
yes, I actually used to consult it
I've previously posted on my favorite exercises for a fast-acting manuscript Rx, what I call "emulation" or "permutation" exercises, here. (Which one is it, emulation or permutation? Depends. That would be another post.)

The basic idea is to take a phrase or perhaps as many as a few sentences from another writer's work or from your own manuscript, and play with it in some predetermined way. Sometimes the exercise might prompt a new piece; othertimes it might give you just what you need to brighten up the blah or smooth a rough patch in a draft. Moreover, for my wampum, permutation exercises beat crossword puzzles by a Texas section. (Yowie, that was an orangutang's tea party of imagery!)

Yes, I am being silly. To play, you have to be willing to be silly! Tell your ego to just take a long cool breath. You, dear writerly reader, do not have to use the results of your writing exercises in your manuscript, never mind show them to anyone else.

Simply, for any given permutation exercise, come up with a bunch of things! Maybe elegant, maybe dorky. Maybe even dorksterly dorkikins dorky. Then circle the one or two results that, for whatever reason, strike your fancy and/or seem apt for your purposes.

In my experience, and that of many of my writing students, doing these exercises is a tiny investment for a mega-payoff. The more often you do these little exercises, the easier they get, and this ease will greatly serve you in your endeavors to write, and in particular, to write more vividly. You will also get practice in generating material you are able to, la de da, discard. And discarding unworthy bits and pieces of a draft, and even whole novels, without attachment, that's a vital skill for a writer, too.


There are as many permutation exercises as you can dream up. This one, what I call "Blast Past Easy," plays with cliché.

How can you spot a cliché? If a phrase sounds familiar and/ or it came to you too easily, it's probably a cliché.

What's wrong with cliché? For more discerning readers, whom presumably you would want to have, cliché signals a lack of originality and/or naiveté and/or sloppiness. In sum: mediocrity. There are exceptions-- for example, a fictional character or the subject of biography might use cliché (and if they do, that tells us somehing about them, does it not?) And some essayists use cliché for comic effect. (I'll be posting about intentional diction drops anon.)

"Like deja vu all over again"-- well, you can debate me, but I'm going to call that a cliché, except  as used by Yogi Berra, because he's the one who came up with it.

Here are a few clichés I happened upon in recent weeks' reading, and my permutations-- four each. If you feel so moved, a good exercise could be to add more permutations of your own.

"Talk does not boil the rice"
Talk does not shampoo the pooch
Talk does not slice the pepperoni
Talk does not iron the shirts
Talk does not roast the turkey
(You might try a permutation of the noun, "talk," e.g., art; violin playing; texting

"Shoveling smoke"
Shoveling soap bubbles
Shoveling Koolaid
Shoveling fog
Shoveling thunder

"Bet you dollars for donuts"
Bet you deutschmarks for Dingdongs
Bet you dinars for dinos
Bet you dollars for diddlysquat
Bet you pounds for peanuts

(Part of what makes "dollars for donuts" such an appealing cliché is the alliteration, that is, the repeating "d"s of "dollars" and "donuts." You might try varying the sound, e.g., silver for Skittles, or, pesos for pips, etc.)

"Let the cat out of the bag"
Let the cockroach out of the bag
Let the bedbug out of the backpack
Let the tarantula out of the pickle jar
Let the troll out of the compost pile
(Another permutation could be to switch the verb, e.g, Put the cat in the bag; stuff the cat in the bag; drown the cat in the bag; swing the cat in the bag, etc.)

"The bee's knees"
The snail's tail
The donkey's ankle
The sloth's toenail (doesn't rhyme but, oh well, I like it)
The kitten's mittens (is that a cliché?)

"A fish out of water"
A mole out of its hole
A horse out of its pasture
A sheep out of its herd
A credit card nowhere near a department store

# # #

P.S. Visit my workshop page here. For more exercises, help yourself to "Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More Free Five Minute Writing Exercises."

Today's exercise is

May 14 "Barrel, Mirror, Telephone"
In three sentences or less describe the barrel. In three sentences or less describe the mirror. Where is the telephone? Describe what happens.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Jeffrey Mishlove's New Video Series "InPresence"

Highly recommended: Psychologist Jeffrey Mishlove's new series of short inspiring talks, "InPresence," on his YouTube channel, New Thinking Allowed. 

InPresence  0001:

InPresence 0002:

InPresence 0003:

To date Mishlove has posted 70 InPresence videos.You can find these and his many interviews on the "playlists" page for his YouTube channel.

(I am honored to say that a couple of years ago, for New Thinking Allowed, Mishlove interviewed me about my book, Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual.)

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 30, 2018


Get this book at
The Seminary Co-op

"Systems analysis must become cultural analysis, and in this historians may be helpful."-- Lynn White, Jr. 

Drive into Far West Texas and before you can say "pass the Snickers" you'll spy the railroad tracks, which more often than not run, seemingly infinite sinuous ribbons, parallel to the highway. Travel for a spell and you'll pass or, if at a crossing, be passed by a freight train, always an impressive experience. All of which is to say, railroads are an inescapable part of Far West Texas scenery and history, and so, for my book in-progress on that region, I have been doing my homework.

Of late: The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, a German historian and scholar of cultural studies. Originally published as Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise, the English translation came out in 1979; I read the 2014 edition with a new preface, "World Machines: The Steam Engine, the Railway, and the Computer," in which  Schivelbusch asks,
"Could it be that the railway, the accelerator of the Industrial Revolution, and the computer occupy different points along / on the same trajectory of machine evolution?"

In recent weeks, this question of machine evolution, to my surprise, has begun to interest me intensely.

At first I had thought of this book I am writing about Far West Texas as a doppelgänger to my 2002 memoir of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, Miraculous Air, for the ecosystems and early exploration and mission histories of these two regions have many parallels. There are indeed many parallels, however, to start with, the literature on Far West Texas is exponentially greater and-- more to the point-- since the time I was traveling in Baja California, the experience of traveling itself has been radically transformed by the Digital Revolution. My sense of this is a compression of time and a curious elasticity of space; of oftentimes disquieting and othertimes most welcome transparency; and that constant pull to the little screens that, so it would seem, we all feel these days, whenever, wherever.

In The Railway Journey, Schivelbusch opens with a detailed discussion of the history of the steam engine.

"Next to wood, water and wind power were the main energy sources of pre-industrial economic life. The Industrial Revolution, generally seem as having begun in the the last third of the eighteenth century, was a complex process of denaturalization... Iron became the new industrial building material, coal the new combustible. In the steam engine, the prime mover of industry, these two combined to produce energy in theoretically unlimited amounts."

The "decisive step" for the development of the steam engine-- and ultimately the railroads-- was the introduction of rotary motion, "a kind of mechanization of the mill race." In other words, transforming the up-and-down movement of the steam-driven piston to the driving wheel.

In his new 2014 preface, however, Schivelbusch writes: "It took me forty years and the Digital Revolution to realize that I had missed the more important point of the invention preceding it." In other words, the technological Crossing of the Rubicon, as it were, was "placing a piston in a cylinder and applying the pressure of steam... [I]t did not transfer an existing form but forced a new form of power out of combustible matter." Moreover, "the piston's up-and-down movement was no longer the analogue of any form of movement found in nature but possessed a binary-digital logic all its own."

Watch a demonstration of a piston (in this example, powered by an electric motor):

Most histories of the computer's binary-digital logic that I am familiar with focus on English mathematician George Boole's An Investigation into the Laws of Thought (1854)-- the concept of binary logic. Schivelbusch's is a wondrously powerful insight. 


In his second chapter, "The Machine Ensemble," Schivelbusch explores the ways the development of the railways was experienced as "denaturalization and densensualization." With cuttings, embankments, and tunnels"the railroad was constructed straight across the terrain, as if drawn with a ruler." Now "the traveler perceived the landscape as it was filtered through the machine ensemble."

And what is the machine ensemble? "[W]heel and rail, railroad and carriage, expanded into a unified railway system... one great machine covering the land."


With the railroad, argues Schivelbusch, "space was both diminished and expanded." Things moved across space faster, and simultaneously, more space could be accessed. "What was experienced as being annihilated was the traditional space-time coninuum which characterized the old transport technology."

Schivelbusch quotes the German poet Heinrich Heine, writing in 1843:
Heinrich Heine, protosurrealist
"What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things, in our notions! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time lone... Now you can travel to Orléans in four and a half hours, and it takes no longer to get to Rouen. Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed and connected up with their railways! I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the linden trees; the North Sea's breakers are rolling against my door."

Sniffed Victorian-era English art critic John Ruskin:
"Modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from being a parcel."

(I quail to imagine what might have been Ruskin's reaction to a TSA line. We airline travelers have been demoted from parcel to cattle...)


For me, having spent so many hours driving through the vast spaces of Far West Texas, the fourth chapter, "Panoramic Travel," was the most engaging. The opening epigraph is from Emerson's Journals: "Dreamlike traveling on the railroad." In a car, as in a railway compartment, we are enclosed from the weather behind windows, and by a roof and a floor. We rest our bodies in an upholstered seat. Beyond the window, things sail by silently, inexorably, scentlessly: hills, fences, a gas station-- it becomes a blur.

Travel by railroad induced "panoramic perception." Schivelbusch:

"Panoramic perception, in contrast to traditional perception, no longer belonged to the same space as the perceived objects: the traveler saw the objects, landscapes, etc. through the apparatus which moved him through the world. That machine and the motion it created became integrated into his viual perception: thus he could only see things in motion. That mobility of vision-- for a traditionally oriented sensorium, such as Ruskin's-- became a prerequisite for the 'normality' of panoramic vision. This vision no longe experiences evanescence: evanescent reality had become the new reality." (p.64)

Because this can be deadly boring, and necesitated being in close quarters with fellow travelers of, shall we say, possibly inconvenient social connections, bougeois train travelers took up reading. Schivelbusch:
"Reading while traveling became almost obligatory.The dissolution of reality and its resurrection as panorama thus became agents for the total emancipation from the traversed landscape: the traveler's gaze could then move into an imaginary surrogate landscape, that of his book." (p. 64)*

But back to computers. I am beginning, with fraying patience, to think of ours as the Age of Phubbing Smombies. To walk the aisle of a railway passenger car or an airplane  is to catch the soundless glow of dozens of little screens... the overwhelming majority not of text but of flashing images of murders, faces, scantily clad women, roaring dinosaurs, cars and other objects hurling off cliffs (what is it with all the cliffs?).. and cartoons of the same... In sum, a mesmerizing mishmash of imagery.


In the 19th century the "great machine" of the railway ensemble spread across the land in both Europe  and the North American continent, but, as Schivelbusch details, there were fundamental differences in the pattern and nature of that machine. Europe was already densely populated and richly networked by highways and roads; "in America, the railroad served to open up, for the first time, vast regions of previously unsettled winderness."* In other words, to quote Schivelbusch quoting von Weber, "In Europe, the railroad facilitates traffic; in America, it creates it."

*Quibble: Important regions of America's interior were not in fact a wholly "unsettled wilderness" until after the cascading demographic collapses,  and later Indian removals, and the Indian Wars. There were well-established trails and trade routes throughout the continent, many going back many hundreds of years. But yes, compared to Europe, the road networks in Amreica were thin and poor and the vast desert expanses and the Great Plains were terrible, as many memoirs attest, to traverse by horse-drawn vehicles. 
And while Europe's industrial revolution focused on manufacturing, primarily textiles, in America it was about agriculture (cotton, tobacco) and transport. In the early 19th century, what American industry had in the way of machines was, writes Schivelbusch, "river steamboats, railroad trains, sawmills, harvesting combines."

By the 19th century the string of older cities of the North Atlantic coast-- Boston down to Washington DC-- were linked by well-established highways, however, the rest of the continent had more primitive roads, oftentimes what amounted to footpaths and, above all, waterways: The Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Hudson, various canals, and the Great Lakes. "Thus passenger travel used these waterways in the absence of highways... One traveled by water whenever possible."

Unsurprisingly, the American railway compartment took on the distinctive character of the American riverboat cabin. These tended to be broad open rooms, more comfortable for traveling long distances. European railroad compartments took their template from the stagecoach, a cozier space.

Schivelbuch argues that in American culture the railroad was closely linked with the steamer both because it was these were the first and second mechanized means of transportation and because so much of the interior landcape-- the Great Plains--was described by travelers as kind of vast ocean. (Indeed it was, in an eon past, the bottom of an ocean.)

The path of the railroad tracks differed as well: American tracks tended to curve where European tracks would be straight. As Schivelbusch points out, this reflected differences in labor and land costs. In America, land was cheap and labor expensive. In Europe then "it paid to construct tunnels, embankments and cuttings in order to make the rails proceed in a straight line, at a minimum of land cost."

Ah, so that explains the sinuosity of those Far West Texas rails.


"new consciousness of time and space based on train schedules and the novel activity of reading while traveling" (p.160)

Re: The reconsideration of the concept of shock in the 19th century. Schivelbusch:

"The railroad related to the coach and horses as the modern mass army relates to the medieval army of knights (and as manufacture and industry do to craftmanship.)" (p.159)

 Re: A "sinister aspect". Schivelbusch:

" had become possible to travel in something that seemed like an enormous grenade." (p.160)
"The train passenger of the later nineteenth century who sat reading his book thus had a thicker layer of that skin than the earlier traveler, who coud not even think about reading because the journey still was, for him, a space-time adventure that engaged his entire sensorium." (p.165)

(Thicker layer of skin!! Just turn on TV news!! The commercials!! In our day, we've all grown callouses on top of rhino hide.)


Schivelbusch covers Haussmann's remodeling of Paris in detail in chapter 12, "Tracks in the City."

"The streets Haussmann created served only traffic, a fact that distinguished them from the medieval streets an lanes that they destroyed, whose function was not so much to serve traffic as to be a forum for neighborhood life; it also distinguihsed them from the boulevards and avenues of the Baroque, who linearity and width was designed more for pomp and ceremony han for mere traffic." (p. 183)
"The broad, tree-lined streets were seen as providers of light and air, creating sanitary conditions in both a physiological and a political sense-- the latter favorable to the rule of Napoleon III." (p. 186)


The final chapter, "Circulation," looks at the consequences of the changes in transportation for retail, specifically, the development of department stores.

"As Haussmann's traffic arteries were connected to the rail network by means of the railway stations,and thus to all traffic in its entirety, the new department stores, in turn, were connected to the new intra-urban arteries and their traffic. The Grands Magasins that arose during the second half of the nineteenth century were concentrated on the boulevards that supplied them with goods and customers." (p.188)
While traveling on the train put an end to conversation, so the department store put an end to haggling, for now there were price tags.

Department stores encouraged panoramic perception.

"There had to be noise, commotion, life everywhere... The customer was kept in motion; he traveled through the department store as a train passenger traveled through the landscape. In their totality, the goods impressed him as an ensemble of objects and price tags fused into a pointillistic overall view..."(p. 191)

The sources of parnoramic perception were at once speed and "the commodity character of objects."(p. 193)


"... whatever was part of circulation was regarded as healthy, progressive, constructive; all that was detached from circulation, on the other hand, appeared diseased, medieval, subversive, threatening."
(p. 195)


Re: The Grand Tour, "an essential part of ... education before the industrialization of travel." The world was experienced in its original spatio-temporality... His education consisted of his assimilation of the spatial individuality of the places visited, by means of an effort that was both physical and intellectual" (p. 197)

(At this thought, of the industrialization of travel, I had an evil little chuckle recalling Mrs Pofrock in Henry James' The Ambassadors.)

"The railroad, the destroyer of experiential space and time, thus also destroyed the educational experience of the Grand Tour... the places visited by the traveler became increasingly similar to the commodities that were part of the same circulation system. For the twentieth-century tourist, the world has become one huge department store of countrysides and cities" (p. 197)

I would venture that a more apt analogy would now be "menu of venues for digitally realized self-presentation" -- translation from the Noodathipious Fluffermuffer: "selfies." I hear most everyone shops online these days.

 # #


A curious analogy occured to me, that just as the automobile allowed for more agency for a traveler vis-a-vis the railroad, so the tablets and smartphones allow more agency than the television for the consumer of entertainment.


Lynn White's 1973 address to the American Historical Society
Both charming and profound.

Society for the History of Technology's List of Classic Works in the History of Technology
Note: One book that should be on that list and for some unfathomable reason is not:
Donald R. Hill's Islamic Science and Engineering (Edinburgh University Press, 1993)
Speaking of which, why isn't Schivelbusch?! Let's call it a handy, albeit embryonic, list.

See also SHOT's Basic Bibliography of Works in the Field

# # #

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 23, 2018


Sara Mansfield Taber,
author of Chance Particulars
Starting this year, every fourth Monday I run a Q & A with a fellow writer. This fourth Monday features Sara Mansfield Taber

Creative nonfiction, literary journalism, literary travel memoir, ye olde travel writing-- by whatever name you call this genre, Sara Mansfield Taber is a master. Among her works are: Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's DaughterBread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf; and Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia.  

Without exception Taber's works are superb, wondrous, must-reads for anyone who would explore the world from an armchair-- and for anyone who would write their own. There is so much to relish and to learn from Taber's daring, her mastery of the craft, her ability to see the most telling particulars, and the exquisite, sensuous beauty of her prose.

Get it from
The Seminary Co-op
Book Depository
Johns Hopkins University Press
Based just outside Washington DC, Taber is also a long-time writing teacher, currently leading workshops both privately and at the Writer's Center (Bethesda MD) and elsewhere. And now, for both her workshop students and for those at a distance, who cannot take her workshop, just out from Johns Hopkins University Press, and with lovely illustrations by Maud Taber-Thomas, we have Sara Mansfield Taber's Chance Particulars: A Writer's Field Notebook.

I was honored to have been asked to contribute a blurb:

"Sara Mansfield Taber's Chance Particulars is at once a delicious read and the distilled wisdom of a long-time teacher and virtuoso of the literary memoir. Her powerful lessons will give you rare and vital skills: to be able to read the world around you, and to read other writers, as a writer, that is, with your beadiest conjurer's eye and mammoth heart. This is a book to savor, to engage with, and to reread, again and again." - C.M. Mayo

The following Q & A is reprinted from her publisher's website.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

TABER: So that writers of any stripefrom travelers, to bloggers, to journal-keepers, to memoirists, essayists, and journalistswill know just what to note down so as to paint rich and vivid pictures of people and places, and create a lively record of their experiences in and responses to the world.

Q: What were some of the most surprising things you learned while writing/researching the book?

TABER: The writing of the book allowed me to put on all my hatsliterary journalist, anthropologist, memoirist, essayist, journal-keeper, and travelerand draw together in one place all that I have learned, from those various fields, about keeping a lively field notebook. Writing the book let me re-live the pleasure of field-notebook keeping and also offer the prodigious pleasure of the habit to others. It is a way to get to live your life twice.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

TABER: A sense of exhilarationto stride out into the world, to experience it fully and observe it closely, and then to write about that world with all the richness and color they can muster. 

# # #

> Check out the trailer for Chance Particulars:

> Visit Sara Mansfield Taber's website.

> For an in-depth interview from a few years ago, listen in anytime to the podcast (or read the transcript), Conversations with Other Writers: Sara Mansfield Taber.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Cyberflanerie: El Paso's Secret Tunnels, Gondek's Biography Podcast, Patricia Dubrava on Ursula Le Guin, Susan Coll's Trailer & etc.

El Paso's Secret Tunnels:

Chris Gondek's excellent Biography Podcast is now available on YouTube:

A most extraordinary trailer, for Susan Coll's comic novel The Stager:

Alright then! For Politico, Nicolas Carr explains Twitter

From one of my favorite blogs: Pat Dubrava celebrates Ursula Le Guin

Trailer for T.R. Hummer's After the Afterlife (Nietzsche will be mentioned.)

For my fellow Mexican history nerds: Maximilian's Memoirs (link goes to a post on my Second Empire / French Intervention blog)

Reb Livingston reads "That's Not Butter" (Reb! I miss your blog "Homeschooled by a Crackling Jackal.")

Barbara Allen Hosts Palo Alto's First Poetry Post

Click here, then scroll waaaaaaaaaaaaaay down, for the talk on "Robinson and Una Jeffers: A Life in Letters"

Ye oldie but yumsie by Dmitry Orlov, The Despotism of the Image


> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Grokking Plot: The Elegant Example of BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES

Get this book from
The Seminary Coop Bookstore
...or your usual go-to online purveyor
As of this year, my posts for the second Monday of the month are dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.


As those of you who follow this blog well know, I am work on a book of creative nonfiction about Far West Texas, a subject distant indeed from children's literature. But Russell Hoban's 1964 classic, Bread and Jam for Frances, is bright in my mind because in the recent days of my mother's final illness, I read it to her several times.

Bread and Jam for Frances was a great favorite of ours, a book my mother read to me when I was learning to read in the early 1960s. She always appreciated children's books, and often gave copies of her favorites as gifts. Other favorites of hers included DuBose Heyward's The Country Bunny and the Little Golden Shoes; Margaret Wise's The Little Fur Family; anything and everything by Beatrix Potter; and many other titles about in Hoban's series about Frances the badger and her little sister Gloria.

From 1939... still selling faster
than little bunnies can hop
In her last days my mother was unable to do more than listen to TV news-- and it pained me to sit in that room awash with reports of shootings, bombings, crashes, the latest tweets from POTUS, commercials for drugs and those breathlessly chirpy recitations of ghastly side effects, and even such absurd "news" stories as-- this one still makes me chuckle-- "Robotic Dinosaur on Fire!"* So I asked my mom if, instead, I could read to her from some of her favorite children's books and she said, delightedly, yes.

*(Robotic Dinosaur on Fire!-- That's the title of my next book of poetry.)

What brings me to mention Bread and Jam for Frances here is that, as I appreciated for the first time, the plot is at once simple and unusually elegant.


No matter whether one is writing an adult thriller, a romance novel, or a literary tour-de-force of an historical epic, plot is something a writer needs to grok, before writing, during drafting, and in the editing process. Where to go, what to cut? For many writers, particularly those working on a first novel, plot can seem more difficult to wrestle down than a wigged-out octupus.

The best and most complete craftmans' treatment of plot that I have found to date is in Robert McKee's Story, a book aimed at screenwriters, but almost every one of his yummy nuggets applies to novels as well. That said, it's a big, fat, doorstopper of a crunchily crunchwich-with-garlic- sweetpotatoes-on-the-side kind of book, not the most appropriate for a one day workshop, as I prefer to teach them.

In my workshops, for a necessarily brief introduction to plot, I prefer to start with the chapter in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, which introduces the Fichtean curve, and then move on to Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which introduces the three-act paradigm (which also applies to fiction).

Find these three and more recommended books on craft here.

Gardner's On the Art of Fiction is the best introductory book on craft I know-- over the past 30-odd years I have read it and reread it more times than I can count (and bought new copies when the old ones fell to pieces). However, on many an occasion, before I learned to first give 'em ye olde cold fish of a caveat, the more sensitive among my students would complain bitterly about Gardner's arrogant tone. And to those of you not in my workshop but who who have read and loathed Gardner, I say unto you: Buck up, kiddos, or consider that Gardner did you a favor so you can quit now because the literary world, like the whole big wide rest of it, makes snowflakes sweat blood! Then flash-fries 'em to a crisp! Anyway, Gardner died in a motorcycle accident years ago so you're unlikely to ruffle his feathers with your cranky review on Goodreads-- which only makes you sound like a flaming snowflake. SSSSsssss.

Seriously, have a laugh, shake off Gardner's tone like the peacocking silliness that it is; if you want to understand the art of fiction, I urge you to read what he has to say. (Also, by the way, you can ignore the subtitle, Notes on Craft for Young Writers. It's for anyone writing fiction, at any age.)

Of course, in a workshop it is necessary to talk about plot in reference to one or more specific novels. But one of the gnarliest challenges for a workshop is that reading a novel requires many hours-- no time for that in a one day format-- and even the most well-read writers may not have read the same books, nor share the same taste. Perhaps we have all read Edith Wharton, but for you it was Ethan Fromm, for me, The Custom of the Country. Willa Cather? Perhaps you read My Antonia and I read Death Comes for the Archbishop. And, Lord knows, there are perfectly intelligent and talented workshop students who have not heard of either Cather or Wharton. Lord also knows that, much as we may recommend our favorite novels to each other, even we roaringly avid readers may work but a fraction of the way down our towering to-read piles.

Edith Wharton and Willa Cather
Masters of American literature-- and plot
My uberly-uber faves
In an ideal workshop I would dissect the plot in any one or or more of their novels
(I should like to think that these ladies would have been charmed by Bread and Jam.)

What a fine thing then to have found a little book, so short and sweet, with such an expertly wrought plot as Bread and Jam for Frances. 

But I cannot bring myself to do taxidermy, that is to say, a synopsis. For those of you looking to learn about plot (and/or find a worthy children's book as a gift for your favorite young reader), may I suggest that you buy a copy of Bread and Jam for Frances, then read it, which won't take you more than about 10 to fifteen minutes. Then return here, just below the triple hashtags.

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Bread and Jam through the FICHTEAN CURVE
Think of this as a triangle (curvy if you wish) where your story travels, episode-of-conflict by episode -of-conflict, up the hypotenuse to the big pointy CLIMAX. Then, with your denouement-- pronounced, raising your nose oh so slightly, day-noo-mahn-- slidey-slide down to...The End!

Episode o' conflict: At breakfast Frances does not want an egg; she only wants bread and jam.
E o' c: She admits she traded yesterday's chicken salad sandwich for bread and jam
E o' c: At lunch she offers to trade her bread and jam for a sandwich, is refused
E o' c: At snack time her mother gives her not a special snack but bread and jam
E o' c: For dinner there are veal cutlets but Frances gets... bread and jam

Climax: At the next dinner Frances cries and asks for spaghetti and meatballs!

Denouement: For lunch the next day Frances enjoys a lunch of a lobster salad sandwich and much more. She agrees with her friend Albert that it is good to eat many different things.

Bread and Jam through Syd Field's THREE ACT PARADIGM

Breakfast at home: Frances does not want her egg, only bread and jam. She admits she traded yesterday's lunch of a chicken salad sandwich for bread and jam
Plot point (what takes us to Act II): It's time for Frances to go to school

Lunch with Albert, Albert has a nice lunch while Frances has only bread and jam.
Snack time, it's still bread and jam.
Dinner, still bread and jam.
Dinner again, bread and jam
Plot point (what takes us to Act III): Frances cries and asks for meatballs and spaghetti

Frances enjoys her meatballs and spaghetti
The next day, Frances opens her lunch box to find a very nice lunch with a lobster salad sandwich and, with her friend Albert, discusses how nice it is to eat many things


Perchance this sounds silly. Am I saying that we can compare the simple little plot in Bread and Jam for Frances with that of such literary heavyweights as say, The Custom of the Country? Death Comes for the Archbishop? Or, for that matter, The Great Gatsby? Yes, dear writerly readers, that is what I am saying-- and moreover, that because the plot of Bread and Jam for Frances is so compact and simple, it is easier to see. And having seen it so clearly, you should then be better able to see plot in your own work.

What does your plot look like through the paradigm of the Fichtean curve? And of the three-acts?

Now your wigged-out octupus just might shed a few limbs, or at least, braid them together and sit up nicely and accept a cup of tea-- and in between sips, calmly inform you, in his bubbly French accent, what's to happen next. (Never a dull moment writing fiction.)

There are other ways of looking at plot, by the way, and one I cover in my workshops is the "Hero's Journey," a paradigm first eludicated by Joseph Campbell. The book I recommend on this subject is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.


P.S. Check out "'Giant Golden Buddha' & 364 More Free Five Minute Writing Exercises." Today's five minute exercise:

"What's in the Kitchen Drawer?"This is a vocabulary expanding exercise not about using new words, but rather words you already know but seldom use. List the objects in your kitchen drawer(s) from the spatula to the grapefruit knife to the soup ladle. 

> All second Monday posts

> Oodles more resources for writers at my Writing Workshop Page

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell writes:
"Love those books, and your essay! Hoban was featured in a display at Beinecke at Yale. I often think of Frances's difficult experience with Thelma, the bad friend, who trades for her tea set."

Monday, April 02, 2018

MARFA FOR THE PERPLEXED by Lonn Taylor, illustrated by Avram Dumitrescu

Get your copy from
The Marfa Book Company
If you have any interest in Marfa, grab this book, and if you have never heard of Marfa, grab this book and you will be fascinated! I have yet to grab it myself, for it is hot off the presses from the Marfa Book Company, but I have already read most of it, as I have been an avid and long-time reader of historian Lonn Taylor's "Rambling Boy" columns, many about Marfa and its denizens, for the Big Bend Sentinel.

> Taylor also reads his columns for NPR here.

Taylor is a deeply knowledgable historian-- he made a distinguished career at the Smithsonian Institution before retiring to Far West Texas-- and a most elegant writer, ever curious and clear-eyed, and one--how rare this is!-- with a gentlemanly heart bigger than the world.

As for artist Avram Dumitrescu, two of his wild-eyed chicken paintings, red-white-and-blue like the Lone Star State's flag, are hanging on the wall in my Texas Bibliothek, exuding their magic "dino energy"! Viva!

From the catalog copy:

Marfa for the Perplexed, by Lonn Taylor, is a collection of 60 essays about people and places in and around Marfa, Texas. Due to the work there of the minimalist artist Donald Judd between 1972 and his death in 1994, Marfa (population 2,000), located 200 miles from the nearest commercial airport in Texas’s isolated Big Bend region, has become an international art center and, more recently, a hip tourist destination. Marfa for the Perplexed reveals that Marfa and the surrounding country has always been a place of refuge for eccentrics and individualists, many of whom you will meet in the book’s pages. It exposes the rich mix of cultures that underlies the current Marfa art scene - the real Marfa beyond the buzz.
Marfa for the Perplexed is illustrated by Alpine, Texas artist Avram Dumitrescu. The foreword is by Marfa’s Sterry Butcher, a frequent contributor to Texas Monthly and other publications. 

I am proud to say that Taylor and Dumitrescu both granted me interviews (Taylor here, in 2015, and Dumitrescu here in 2012) for my Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project, which is apropos of my book in-progress-- despite the title of the podcast series, my book covers not only Marfa but the wider Big Bend / Trans-Pecos region, that is to say, Far West Texas.

> Lonn Taylor and Avram Dumitrescu talk about their book for Marfa Public Radio

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Q & A with Nancy Peacock, Author of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PERSIMMON WILSON, On Writing in the Whirl of the Digital Revolution

Get this book from theSeminary Coop Bookstore
(and other online booksellers)

I happened upon the website of novelist Nancy Peacock in, of all places, the comments section of computer science professor Cal Newport's blog. Newport is the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldNovelist Nancy Peacock's comments there echoed my own on the topic of social media; moreover, as I am writing about the Seminole Scouts and the Indian Wars in Far West Texas, an undeservedly obscure subject, I was intrigued to learn about her latest novel, The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson. 

From the catalog copy:

"For fans of Cold Mountain and The Invention of Wings comes a tour de force of historical fiction (Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain) that follows the epic journey of a slave-turned-Comanche warrior who travels from the brutality of a New Orleans sugar cane plantation to the indomitable frontier of an untamed Texas, searching not only for the woman he loves but so too for his own identity. 
I have been to hangings before, but never my own. 
Sitting in a jail cell on the eve of his hanging, April 1, 1875, freedman Persimmon Persy Wilson wants nothing more than to leave some record of the truth his truth. He may be guilty, but not of what he stands accused: the kidnapping and rape of his former master's wife. 
In 1860, Persy had been sold to Sweetmore, a Louisiana sugar plantation, alongside a striking, light-skinned house slave named Chloe. Their deep and instant connection fueled a love affair and inspired plans to escape their owner, Master Wilson, who claimed Chloe as his concubine. But on the eve of the Union Army s attack on New Orleans, Wilson shot Persy, leaving him for dead, and fled with Chloe and his other slaves to Texas. So began Persy's journey across the frontier, determined to reunite with his lost love. Along the way, he would be captured by the Comanche, his only chance of survival to prove himself fierce and unbreakable enough to become a warrior. His odyssey of warfare, heartbreak, unlikely friendships, and newfound family would change the very core of his identity and teach him the meaning and the price of freedom. 
From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Life Without WaterThe Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson is a sweeping love story that is as deeply moving and exciting an American saga as has ever been penned (Lee Smith, author of Dimestore)."

Check out Nancy Peacock's work on her website,, and read more about her novel here.

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive literary writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Facebook, Twitter, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share? 

NANCY PEACOCK:  My biggest experience with the digital revolution has been with Facebook. After much cajoling from an agent and the culture, I finally opened a Facebook account. That's what we're supposed to do, as writers, right? We're supposed to promote our work every possible way. I was surprised to find things that mattered to me on Facebook, and then, as those things dwindled, I became addicted to searching for them. In the end, my mind became fractured, and I was unable to focus on what I needed to focus on: the writing. I deleted my FB account. I did not disable it. I deleted it, and I feel my mind healing. It was like coming off a drug.

 I'm a very private person, and my writing grows from that. I need spaciousness to pull it all together, and spaciousness is coming to be seen a bit like the horse and buggy. Quaint and picturesque, but impractical. But I needed it. Not having it is a deal breaker to me.

I also spend a lot of time on research. Writing any novel requires keeping a lot of plates in the air. Writing a historical novel requires keeping those plates from colliding and breaking against facts and dates. It takes focus. I couldn't focus because social media had splintered my ability to do so.

I think writers, and publishers (maybe especially publishers) need to start taking a bigger picture of what literature means, and what it has to offer that other forms of storytelling, namely movies and television, do not. Writing and reading are ways to slow down. I wish the industry would embrace that, and stop whipping the more, more, more horse.

 For me it really came down to either being a writer or presenting as a writer. I chose the former.

C.M. MAYO: Are you in a writing group? If so, can you talk about the members, the process, and the value for you? 

NANCY PEACOCK: I am in a writer's group. The group grew from a women's writers group which I led for years, and for income. Over time the members became very solid with each other, and I kept looking in from the position of leader thinking I want to join. I thought that for years. Finally I asked if they would accept me as a member, and they said yes. So I lost some income because I no longer lead the group, but I gained an incredible group. These women are sharp, funny, great listeners and exceptional responders to the written word. We have three novelists (one needs to finish her novel - she knows who she is!), a poet, and an essayist, short story writer, and poet combined into one amazing person, who also bakes great cakes! We've seen each other through life events, sickness, raising children, publication, struggling with the work (although it is mostly me who struggles and crashes with the work) and much more.

 I think the format of a writing group is very important, and that not enough people pay attention to that. I don't think just any comment goes. You need an agreement among the members on how to respond. For instance, I once brought in a piece to a different writing group. The piece mentioned being in therapy, and one of the members response was to say she was glad I was still in therapy. She said it again and again, and it was personal, a judgement on my sanity, and had nothing to do with the writing or the story I was telling. This was not OK at all and I tried to discuss it with them and got shot down for it. One of the reasons my current group works so well and has lasted so long is because we follow guidelines that were established at the very beginning.

C.M. MAYO: Did you experience any blocks while writing this novel, and if so, how did you break through them? 

NANCY PEACOCK:  The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson was the least blocked novel I have ever written. The opening line, "I have been to hangings before, but never my own," arrived to me on a walk I took one morning to watch the sunrise. It literally was suddenly in my head. Out of nowhere. I went home and wrote it down, even though at the time I was very discouraged about writing and publishing and was thinking I might never write again. That evening I watched the documentary about The West by Ken Burns, and I idly wondered if there were any black Indians. I knew there were white Indians from having read The Captured by Scott Zesch years earlier. From these two things, the line in my head and the idea of a black Indian, the first chapter poured out of me.

With some books you labor hard to get to know the characters, and to gain their trust. With others you are possessed. This was a possession. I had to do a lot of research and shape the narrative around historical events, but Persy (Persimmon Wilson) was very willing to talk to me. I had a sense of urgency from him, just as if he was about to hang in a few days time, which at the opening of the novel, he is.

C.M. MAYO: Back to a digital question. At what point, if any, were you working on paper for this novel? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic? 

NANCY PEACOCK: I mostly compose on the computer. I don't have trouble with it. I trained myself to do it with my first book. When it comes to anything but writing, I don't like being on the screen. It's the interaction between story and me that makes composing on the computer different from all other screen activity. If I get stuck on something, if a scene is not working, I turn to writing by hand. That usually makes something break through that wouldn't come before. I also teach two prompt writing classes each week, during which I write with the students, and I sometimes use that time to work on a novel. I remember vividly writing the scene in which Persy is captured by the Comanche in my class, and reading it to them. It went almost verbatim into the book.

C.M. MAYO: Do you keep in active touch with your readers? If so, do you prefer hearing from them by email, sending a newsletter, a conversation via social media, some combination, or snail mail?

NANCY PEACOCK: I am in active touch with a large group of local writers and readers because I've built a community around a free class that I teach once a month I've been doing this for fifteen years now, and hundreds of people have come through my workshop. Because of this community building, I've built a local fan base. National has proven more difficult, and I don't really think social media helps. I think it's spitting in the wind.

I have a website and occasionally hear from someone via the contact form. I always love hearing from anyone who's read my book. I've found that if someone takes the time to contact me, it's because they liked something in the book, so it's (mostly) been a positive experience.

 I'd like to encourage readers to contact writers whose work has impressed them. There's so much competition to the printed page these days. I don't even think publishing houses understand the unique value of the novel.

Another community building activity I hope to organize is a regular letter writing campaign to favorite authors. Real letters. Not email. Real letters (or postcards!) with stamps and handwritten words on them. I am extremely touched when I receive one of these, and I'd like to make a space for readers to reach out to writers. I'd like this to be a regular part of the reading experience. Another nod to the slowing down reading gives you. Nothing says love like snail mail!

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> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, March 19, 2018


There are some books, masterpieces as they may be, that one simply is not ready to read. For me, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby comes to mind. Trudging through it as assigned reading for my highschool English class, I could not fathom why anyone would celebrate this blather about the antics of a bunch of silly people! Zoom ahead a decade and a half, and then rereading it, however, I was in awe-- at once, continually, and sledding into that elegy of a last line-- of its majesty, its poetry, its utterly American genius (although indeed, it is about a bunch of silly people). I say the same about Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.

Are you ready to read Four Arguments? Or have you already? It's an old book, originally published in the late 1970s. For me to read Mander's masterpiece in this Age of the Smombies has been one of the most astonishing reads in my life. Yet I do not believe that I could have read it any earlier. Or, perhaps, I should say: would that I had read it earlier.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Nancy Peacock comments:

"I read this book many, many years ago, first as a series of excerpts published in the Mother Earth News, and later, I purchased it and read it again. It is profound. I have told so many people about this book, and yet my recommendation always falls on deaf ears. The fact that is was published in the '70s does not make it any less profound today. In fact in my opinion, given the technologies its author likely did not imagine and how they have taken over so many lives, it is even more profound. Thank you for posting this." Nancy Peacock