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Joseph E Bird

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writing

the porch

Home. The theme of Katie’s writing challenge. I failed to get a new story for March. I tried, but it didn’t happen. I could tell you the reasons, but you don’t really care. Instead, here is something I wrote few years ago that fits the theme. Next month, something new.

She sits on the porch alone

as we drive by.

Stop on your way back.

Past the house,

we turn up the hill that’s almost too steep.

The trees reach out and touch the car.

as if to comfort, as if they know.

In the clearing, faded flowers lean

in front of slabs of stone,

forever marking the place

where we visit those

we can no longer visit.

Gospel music from across the hollow

filters through the trees.

Dusk is creeping closer.

Has it been that long already?

We leave because we must.

She sits on a swing

built by her husband’s father,

so many year ago.

We sit in rockers

and talk.

The porch is painted white,

the floor boards brick red.

Once-sharp edges are now round

from years of touch

by those who rest

on the hill above.

The swing creaks back and forth,

a soothing lullaby.

Nearby a bird calls in strong song.

Farther away, another answers.

Still another sings the song of

the solitary bird.

A frog croaks.

Just one, for now.

Others will follow later.

A cool breeze brings relief

from the hot, muggy day.

The serenity of the world

from the porch

is comforting.

All things of youth

are memories now.

He is gone.

Though there are friends,

though there is family,

she is alone.

She embraces the solitude.

I love this porch, she says.

In the mornings

on the swing

by myself.

I am blessed.

The Lord

brought him

to me.

And he brought me

to this house,

this porch.

And now,

though alone,

I am blessed.


copyright joseph e bird, 2016

listen to this song and learn about art and literature

Yet again I’m at my desk, working, with music in the background. Again it’s Wilco. I’m learning a couple of their songs and I’m letting them sink in. I came across this live performance of Shot in the Arm. When I play it on my guitar it’s just me and it’s a simple song, though the song itself is infused with conflict and doubt. In this live version, you see Jeff Tweedy up front, singing and playing his simple chords. In the background a whole heckuva a lot is going on. The conflict can’t be avoided. Doubt is everywhere. It’s all in the music and it might be a chaotic mess if not for the simple story (Tweedy) holding it all together. It makes a simple song complex and engaging. Good art and good literature do the same thing.

Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm.

worlds are colliding

So I’m sitting here at work listening to Wilco on YouTube, and I see in the upcoming videos, a video of Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) talking to George Saunders, whose book – A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – I’m currently reading. If you’re a writer or a musician, I think you’ll enjoy this. If you’re like me, you’ll have to listen in bits and pieces.

So, Mr. Chekhov.

No, not that Chekov.

Chekhov, as in Anton Chekhov, the Russian author.

In The Darling, Chekhov tells the story of a woman who is somewhat of a serial lover, losing herself to whomever she loves. When we first meet Olenko, we admire her utter devotion to the man she loves. When he dies, she repeats the pattern with her new love. And when he dies, she repeats it again with her new love, and we begin to have questions about her. We begin to see the flaws in her character. And yet, her biggest sin is loving too much and too easily.

In his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders offers this about Olenka:

“I feel about Olenko the way I think God might. I know so much about her. Nothing has been hidden from me. It’s rare, in the real world, that I get to know someone so completely. I’ve known her in so many modes: a happy young newlywed and a lonely old lady; a rosy beloved darling and an overlooked, neglected piece of furniture, nearly a local joke; a nurturing wife and an overbearing false mother.

And look at that: the more I know about her, the less inclined I feel to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment. Some essential mercy in me has been switched on. What God has going for Him that we don’t is infinite information. Maybe that’s why He’s able to, supposedly, love us so much.”

in the clearing stands a boxer

A publisher has expressed interest in my novel, Heather Girl. They like the story and the primary characters; however, they feel that I have too many sub-plots and secondary characters that take away from the main focus of the novel. There are a couple of sub-plots and secondary characters that I have no trouble eliminating. There are others that I’m hesitant to lose.

I’ve been reading a book recommended by Mr. Larry Ellis, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. In the book, Saunders examines short stories of Russian authors so that writers may learn and hone their craft. Saunders just told me something that is helpful in evaluating Heather Girl. It is this:

Imagine we’re bouncers, roaming through Club Story, asking each part [of the story], “Excuse me, but why do you need to be in here?” In a perfect story, every part has a good answer. (“Well, uh, in my subtle way, I am routing energy to the heart of the story.”)

Our evolving, rather hard-ass model of a story says that every part of it should be there for a reason. The merely incidental (“this really happened” or “this was pretty cool” or “this got into the story and I couldn’t quite take it out again”) won’t cut it. Every part of the story should be able to withstand this level of scrutiny…

The second paragraph confirms what I think needs to be cut.

The first paragraph makes me hesitate on other parts, those that I believe are routing energy to the heart of the story.

It’s fun, this building of a complete story.

just monkeying around

In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey.

It’s a line in a song. I’ve heard the song a hundred times and never paid attention to the lyrics, but yesterday that line just jumped out at me. It amuses me.

Any idea what it’s from?

who you’re supposed to be

“Some people are lucky. They become who they’re supposed to be,” he said. “This did not happen to me until I met your mother. One day we started to talk and it never stopped, this conversation.”

Martin speaking to Lianne on the occasion of her mother’s passing. From the novel Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

jake jarmel

If you’re going to do a book signing, you need Jake Jarmel glasses. So I guess I’m ready.

Tomorrow 10:00-12:00 at Coal River Coffee in beautiful downtown St. Albans.

carnival dreams, of course.

rejections from agents

If you’re an author trying to get published, rejection is part of the process. I have no problem with that. As part of my day job as an architect, we submit our qualifications for projects and are rejected 90% of the time. It’s not that we’re not qualified; most of the time it just means we’re not a good fit for that particular project. It’s the same with writing. And though I’m accustomed to rejection in general, I’d like to see a little more success with my writing.

Authors seeking to be published by a traditional publisher generally seek agent representation first. Thus, agents are the first to offer rejection. Here’s a typical rejection letter (email) from an agent.

Dear Mr. Bird:

Thank you for your recent submission.  We enjoyed reviewing your work. Unfortunately, at this time, we do not feel we have a good place for you on our client list. We wish you all the best success in the future.

Just a form letter. No real feedback. Nothing to tell you if your writing is truly bad or if it’s just a wrong fit for that particular agent. And this judgement is based typically on no more than the first 50 pages of your novel, and more often, the first 10 pages. I can also imagine than an agent can make the assessment after the first few paragraphs.

Here’s another I recieved.

Dear Mr. Bird,

Thank you very much for your query below.   I liked the premise of this story, but I am sorry to say that I did not connect with the writing in the way I had hoped.  For this reason, and with regret, I cannot offer you representation.  However, I wish you every success and hope you will find the perfect home for this material. 

Hey! Positive feedback. This was for Heather Girl and apparently she liked the premise of my story! So that tells my I’m not completely off base with the overall story idea. This is good. Great, actually. Now the bad news.

I did not connect with the writing.

In other words, my writing sucks.

This is what authors tend to do. One minute you’re receiving the Pulitzer, the next your pages are not worth lining the bottom of a bird cage. We’re an insecure bunch. Reality is somewhere in the middle.

After a few days of self-loathing, I decided to try to figure out why the agent might not have connected with my writing. Working under the assumption that she started at the beginning, that’s where I start. And one of the first rules of novel writing is to have a good opening hook. So I spent a few days trying to craft a hook. That was more or less a useless excercise.

Did the agent really not connect with my writing because I didn’t have a clever hook? I doubt it. It’s more than that.

What did I do?

I scrapped the first three chapters altogether. I’ve moved one of my favorite scenes to the beginning of the book. I think it’s more engaging and my hope is that readers will be caught up in the story right from the beginning and be completely unconcerned about the words I use to tell the story. It’s the story, after all, stupid. That stupid is for me.

Yes, it’s taken a lot of work to rearrange the pieces and I’ve lost some of my favorite passages in those first three chapters, but wasn’t it William Faulkner who advised authors to “kill your darlings”?

I’m almost ready to begin another round of agent submittals. We’ll see if any of this has helped.

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