Bless You, Ray Bradbury

I was sad to hear of the passing of Ray Bradbury, a giant in my life.  He was 91, so he lived a good long life, and he gave us amazing writing like Something Wicked This Way Comes and Fahrenheit 451.  But I will always remember him for his collections of short stories, The Illustrated Man, Martian Chronicles, R is for Rocket, S is for Space, Medicine for Melancholy, and others.  They fueled my imagination–as I’m sure they did many people.  But I can truthfully say that Ray Bradbury–with his lyrical writing, his vivid description and interesting stories–shaped me as a writer. I heard he was one of those bridge writers–the ones that transcended genre.  But that didn’t matter.  What mattered was that he took me places, expanded my imagination, urged me to tell stories.

We met once.

I was in Lubbock, working, I think, on my last year at a degree at Wayland Baptist University.  It was 1992.  Ray was speaking at a Young Author’s conference, but also as a public speaker.  I was there to meet my hero.  I brought a copy of Martian Chronicles with me, and the picture of him in the paper.

He talked about his time working for the Smithsonian, designing famous garages of inventors; his work on the Moby Dick screenplay for John Huston.  He didn’t talk much about making science fiction…  but I was rapt nonetheless.  This man had produced so much.  His imagination was so vivid.

Afterwards, there was of course a line up to get signatures. Ray sat behind a small table, and I worked my way up to him.  While I was still a couple of people away, a woman came out of nowhere and jumped the line–with a stack of ten books, all open to the front page.  These she plunked down in front of Ray, saying “These won’t take you but a minute.”  Then she grabbed him by the shoulders and turned him sideways so her daughter could snap a picture.  I think Ray was a bit miffed–a whole line of people trailed out in front of him.

After quickly signing all her books, while she babbled, he turned back to the line with a huge amount of graciousness for our patience.  When I got up there, I put my newspaper and book in front of him, and said, “You’re the reason I started writing.”

He looked up.  “Are you sending stuff out?”

“Well, I’m trying to…I mean…” I stammered.  I wasn’t a very confident writer in 1992, with no sales to my name, but thirty bad stories completed and sitting around somewhere.

“You have to send them out.  Send one out a week.  That’s what I did.  I wrote one story a week–started on Sunday and mailed it on Saturday.  I did this for years.  That way I had 52 stories in the mail and some of them had to sell!”

He laughed.  He shook my hand.  I assured him I would do that. I didn’t keep that promise.  I went on to college, studied writing, but never writing one story a week–until I got to Clarion Writing Workshop and had to write one story a week–(I got five out of six weeks!)

That day back in 1992 I felt blessed by Ray Bradbury.  My hero took time with me, gave me advice.  Perhaps he was fueled by the woman who had taken the time he wanted to give us–maybe he felt an extra special need to be encouraging to me.  I don’t know, but I’ll never forget it.

Bless you, Ray Bradbury.  Bless you for blessing me that day.  And bless you for all the wonderful stories and novels and essays you left us.  And how you crafted magic out of an ordinary day.

Writing Faith Workshop begins, Feb 10, 5-8pm, Whitehorse United Church

  How do you write about your “faith”?  How do you describe the indescribable, the ineffable, the otherworldly? the grief or joy or miracle or peace or disappointment that you have because of your faith?  Everyone can argue about the value or lack of value in “religion”–and it’s an easy connect-the-dots to create your own pictures of what organized religion has done in the world.  It’s harder to write about personal faith or your personal interactions with religion–what keeps you going, what happened to you that you know no one would believe, about the anguish of trying to live in a real, faulty, fragile world, when others ask you to strive for peace, patience, happiness, even joy.

This writing workshop will explore how people write about these very personal experiences, or their thoughts about faith and religion and its very real presence in their lives, or the lives of those around them.  We’ve had students write about their relationships with their parents, their children, their grandchildren, experiences in nature, in confronting others who aren’t on the same page.  We have had students who are believers, non-believers, unsure, people of various faiths.  All faiths are welcome–come with what’s important to you, open to what is important to others. This isn’t a dogma class.  It’s not a class to teach you from the top down.  It’s for you to teach us from the ground up through your experiences, your writing.

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The Truth and the Narrative in Beauty: Compagnie Marie Chouinard’s “The Golden Mean”

To the slow, pounding, pulsing kettledrum, its waves of sound hitting the audience, the two sheen-fabric wrapped shapes on the stage slowly writhe and discard their stiff shimmering sheaths.  So begins Marie Chouinard’s The Golden Mean, restaged for another amazing tour.  I would have a hard time describing what happens.  It’s modern dance, but the performers are all wearing golden wigs, masks, and tassles that run down their legs, at first.  They resemble fauns.  But this isn’t Prelude to “the Afternoon of a Faun”—the music sounds a bit like a science fiction chorale, voices, drums, chorus, building, sustaining, crashing, wincing and dodging, always aching with long-note beauty.

There are maybe twelve dances in the 80 minutes, and each one provides a chance for the viewer, the audience, to participate by bringing their own meaning to the dance.  Perhaps this was intentional; perhaps not.

The dancers, part ballet-part something deeply, bodily organic–they tiptoe, launch, lurch across the stage, always flowing in rhythm to the music.  They are all lovely to watch.  For the first few numbers we feel as if we’re seeing the birth of a civilization, a whole society; toddlers walk across the stage, learn to laugh and cry together, have first few sleeps; ensemble pieces involving the whole company break up the solo, duo and trio dances.  I was most captivated by the two dancers who seemed to be acting out a first relationship—a man who dates the pliable woman, the one he fits into any shape he wants; he is aggressive, demanding, sexual, and she is passive, not quite even awake in the dance.  He discovers how wonderful it is to slide her hand down his face, his chest, his groin; and she starts to fight him, pushing away, and they twist each other back and forth, as she starts finding her own inner aggressor.  They have tortuous sex, or the dance version of it, always moving, stretching, twisting and flexing those dancers’ bodies.  I was captivated too by the narrative I was creating out of the dance–the story I gave that dance, that I’m even giving that dance now in this essay.

We can’t help it.  Human beings, when we see two or more humans interacting with another, we come up with a narrative, a voice over, maybe, but at least a set of actions, reactions, motivations, based on the expressions, the movements that we see in front of us.   Try it at your local mall.  Watch people for any length of time and you give them a narrative.  You can’t help it.

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“Amina” Acid and the Ballad of Bill of Tom: deception in the pursuit of activism

What to make of the sudden revelation that two prominent lesbian bloggers, both activists, were really men?

Tom MacMaster, an American student studying in Scotland, his subject Middle Eastern Studies, created the blog “Gay Girl in Damascus” as a way to give himself a voice in the debates about what was going on in Syria, a voice others would believe.  Well, he got more than he bargained for.  The new found fame–when other people started reading the blog—went to his head, he admits, and he took the opportunity to start pushing his opinions, through Amina Arraf, on all sorts of things related to Syria.  He wanted to make a difference and claimed that no one would listen to him as a white American male.  His blog seemed to be recording life during the “Arab Spring”–a time that’s exciting everyone all over the world.  Oddly, instead of a male protagonist, in Syria, he made his “character” a lesbian:

“It was part of the challenge of being someone who wasn’t me. It was a way of also drawing attention to things, I do think there is a certain orientalism, where we in the West tend to pay more attention to people that are like us, people we can relate to, someone marginalized is more interesting.

I also think I wanted to show that in Syria, too, there are people who are all different, gay, straight, people of every possible permutation.” (from the Washington Post)

When, in a dramatic turn of events in “Amina’s” life, MacMaster writes that she’s kidnapped, he suddenly got the world’s attention.  People were noticeably upset about what was happening to this lesbian blogger in Syria.  They wanted to help. The Post says that this is the moment when a blog that might have remained believable took a misstep.  It was that Amina had so many supporters, so many people “she” had talked to, that they wanted to help her.

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The Nudge, The Monument, and The Fan Base: thoughts about the endurance of writers

Roger Ebert responded recently to an article by Cynthia Ozick written in the New Republic.  So goes my reading.  I get my Ozick from Ebert, but that’s ’cause I’m reading where Ebert is writing.  I don’t have a subscription to the New Republic (but, alas, I should).  Anyway, he quotes from her a lengthy passage about writers no one reads anymore.

Death disports with writers more cruelly than with the rest of humankind,” Cynthia Ozick wrote in a recent issue of The New Republic.

“The grave can hardly make more mute those who were voiceless when alive–dust to dust, muteness to muteness. But the silence that dogs the established writer’s noisy obituary, with its boisterous shock and busy regret, is more profound than any other.

“Oblivion comes more cuttingly to the writer whose presence has been felt, argued over, championed, disparaged–the writer who is seen to be what Lionel Trilling calls a Figure. Lionel Trilling?
“Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his “field”) is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados–or Trilling himself?”

Ebert goes on to talk about whether he’s read these authors, and he’s read all but two.  Ozick goes on to ask the question of whose writing will endure?  I’m not sure that’s the question to ask.  After the Library of Alexandria debacle, who can say anything will endure?  But can we say that we affected the minds of those who lived?  Yes.

Ozick determines that Saul Bellow will endure, most because of the Adventures of Augie March, a book I know few of my friends will have read.  I haven’t read it, and I should.  But it did affect a whole generation.  Ebert makes a comment about Hemingway, that we will know him for The Sun Also Rises and his stories, but little else (he’s quoting and agreeing with another friend).  And true, Old Man and the Sea, though the Pulitzer winner, isn’t the book that endures.  It’s his first book of stories, I think, and The Sun Also Rises that continue to be read.

The Fan Base

I will say that in Science Fiction and Fantasy they have developed the concept of the FAN BASE.  And this actually keeps writing, and writers, alive.  JRR Tolkien will endure for a very long time.  So will Stephen R. Donaldson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, etc.  The classics of Science Fiction are still being read by the fan base, by those who love science fiction and fantasy.  They are suggesting them to their friends.  They are voracious readers and they claim, quite knowledgeably, that you can’t know science fiction and fantasy without reading this set of writers, or that book, and at the conventions these writers are celebrated.  Even ComicCon has such a large science fiction and fantasy base that these 30,000 people will all know a large set of names, not just the celebrities of the moment, but the masters and grandmasters of the genre.

It could be that you might dismiss the FAN BASE as those who feed on pulp, but I would argue that they know what they like, and they are assisting in the endurance of writers and writing and that cultivating a fan base is not a bad idea.  Further, these “genre writers” are introducing them to many of the great works of literature, by quoting from, giving allusions to, works by other authors.  Many of our first introductions to literature–Shakespeare even–was in a comic book, or in a science fiction novel.  I’m not going to give too much more a spirited defense to the importance of Fantastic Literature, or say too much longer that, before Hemingway, authors had their science fiction novels and their literary novels and no one thought of the books differently: London, James, Twain, Poe, Hawthorne, all had a novel where time travel or science fiction played a large role.  Anyway, I have a larger point to make. Still, hold onto the idea that developing a fan base is important–because a fan base has been enthused by your writing, has been affected by your writing, and seeks to market you to their friends.

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“…his cultivation of genuine menace…”: a review of “One Nation Under Gods” at Portal

Val Grimm, over at the Portal, gave me a good review for my short story, “One Nation Under Gods”!  Thanks, Val.  I’m always thrilled that there are people who will review short fiction, and anthologies.  Thank you, Val!  Val reviews the whole anthology, Tesseracts 14, story by story.  Here is his review of mine:

The author of “One Nation Under Gods”, Jerome Stueart, emigrated to Yukon from the States in 2007, and his former citizenship is evident in the themes and content of his story. I’m not biased in its favor because of my nationality, nor simply because its dark vision seems in concord with my fears. This story succeeds, in my eyes, because of his detailed worldbuilding, the realistic relationship between the narrator and his sister, and his cultivation of genuine menace, an evocation of the way people can be treated as things. In the world of this story (which in outlook and some tropes puts me a bit in mind of Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’ 1997 comic Uncle Sam) concepts like Freedom and Patriot are incarnate as deities, administered by priests and priestesses, and the Statue of Liberty herself is known to walk abroad. The history of the gods is the history of the country, and its people are required to memorize that catechism or pay with their lives in particularly grotesque ways; if a child fails the standardized test which is a mandated rite of passage, he or she is transformed into a public object, anything from a soda shop to a garbage can. Stueart skillfully incorporates the conflict between individuality and vested religious and political powers; the way those powers can intertwine and what that merging means; the clash between idealism or perception cultivated through propaganda and reality, between history as the study of people in power versus the study of the people’s past; and the transformation of people into instruments, people into numbers.—Val Grimm at the Portal.

The Future of the Yukon (maybe): Radio Series “Yukon 2058”

We hear a lot about the future of New York, of San Francisco, of England.  Ever wondered what the NORTH would look like in 50 years? What would be happening, what kinds of trends here in the Yukon?  What kinds of possibilities?  Is it all going to be dark from climate change, or will we adapt as we go? I think it’s going to be a good Future if we can take better care of the Now.

Three years ago I created a five part series called “Yukon 2058” for the 50th anniversary of CBC.  They wanted something that celebrated their first 50 years, so I offered them a look at the next 50 years.  My theme was to eventually come back to why CBC is important, why local programming trumps National programming, why having a large staff in a small place like the Yukon is important.  I tried weave my opinions about what is good about CBC, and what is bad about the trends happening to CBC, into a narrative.  Yukon 2058 is the result.  5 parts.  The narrative of a CBC reporter wondering what his future will be, trying to find where he belongs in a rapidly competitive market.

You can go to the Radio Series page and look under YUKON 2058.

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*image is Joyce Majiski’s “Racing Uphill.”  See more of her work on her website.