Writing – On History and Monuments

I came across an interesting challenge a couple months ago.

It said every writer should try working in six different writing forms.  The idea was that we should challenge ourselves.

To stretch creatively by stepping outside of our usual forms.

If memory serves it showed up in a forum that focused mostly on long-form writing, which would explain the choices.  They are:

  • Poetry
  • Six Word Story
  • Flash Fiction (50-1k words)
  • Short Story
  • News Article
  • Opinion Piece

I’m always up for a creative challenge, so let’s give it a try.

This month’s challenge was the Opinion Piece.  It’s not really that novel an experience for me since I’ve been doing commentary (which is just opinion) for my radio program (The View From The Phlipside) for nine years now.  I could have taken the easy way out and just re-used one of those pieces.  But I wanted to be fair to the challenge, so I wrote something brand new.

Here’s the other thing about opinions – if you don’t have the courage to take a stand, you should just shut up.  What I’ve chosen to opine upon is very controversial at the moment.  It also felt right for the day after Independence Day.

My goal was to offer a possible solution along with the opinion.  So I ask that you read the whole way through to the end.

On History and Monuments

Over 150 years separate us from the national trauma of the American Civil War. Long enough that the anguish of the attempted rending of the nation can be treated in mythic and symbolic terms. At this distance, we can pretend that human suffering played a lesser role than high flown philosophical issues. It is only through such a pretense that anyone could suggest that others should “get past” the issues of that part of our history.

Sadly, I do not believe that the United States ever healed from the wounds created by the Civil War. Lincoln’s assassination allowed Reconstruction to be steered away from healing and reconciliation. The process was soon subverted to lock freed slaves out of their rightful place in our national family. The “Lost Cause” was allowed to persist, which perpetuated the division of the nation. Out of that rose veneration of the heroes of the rebellion against the Union. Today, the question of that veneration is the focal point of national strife again.

I live just outside Richmond, Virginia, the historic capital of the Confederate States of America. Drive in any direction from that city and you will quickly find many if the important battlefields of the war. Petersburg, Chancellorsville, Manassas, the Wilderness, Appomattox. You will also discover many parks and monuments to the men who led the fight to dissolve the United States of America.

Running down the middle of the grandest street in Richmond is a series of five monuments to such men. Monument Avenue features statues dedicated to the memories of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and with the grandest monument of them all, Robert E. Lee. Like many cities with such monuments (there are others as well, elsewhere in Richmond), there is a growing discussion of what to do about them. The conversation in Richmond has been calm so far. But there are fundamental questions that must be answered if we are to put the war behind us and heal as a nation.

The central question concerns the role of monuments and our history. Those who would preserve these objects are quick to claim that the effort to remove them is an attempt to “erase history”. Using the Richmond monuments as an example, let’s examine that argument.

Are these monuments memorials? In other words, do they recall to mind some event in the place where they reside? Alternatively, do they memorialize a native son/daughter associated with that place, like the sixth monument dedicated to tennis star Arthur Ashe?

The answer is no. None of the five are natives here and there is no particular historical event associated with the statues or their locations. So, they are not so much historic memorials as monuments. They are intended, including the Ashe statue, to aggrandize the memory of the men represented. Ashe is remembered for his dedication to sports and the young people of his hometown. What memory is attached to the other five?

They rose in rebellion against our nation, led a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, in large part to defend the pernicious institution of slavery. And they lost.

So, what then are these statues intended to aggrandize? History, like elections, has consequences. These men chose their cause and failed. There is no part of American culture that offers glory to failures.

So, is this than an attempt to erase history? Shall we make this chapter of our history “vanish from the earth”? Certainly not. Just a couple miles from the statue of the President of the Confederacy stands the house from which he performed that office. Known as “The White House of the Confederacy”, the building is an important piece of American history. Should the suggestion be made that this edifice be destroyed, I would stand shoulder to shoulder with many of the people who would oppose my stand on these monuments.

Because I believe these monuments should come down. They venerate men and ideas that our nation defeated and rejected. They serve as focal points for the ongoing division within our national psyche. Their time, if it ever existed, is over.

Rather than simply calling for their removal, let us use the opportunity to make a positive contribution to healing. Take the locations and erect new monuments. Monuments to American ideals like the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Richmond has a deep association with the freedom of religion and conscience, the “First Freedom”. By choosing five concepts on which we agree, these monuments become symbols of our ideals and our culture at its best.

If monuments intended to glorify leaders of a failed rebellion were to be replaced by those that remind us of our shared goals, we may finally begin the process of healing. A process too long delayed.

As before, you are invited to play along.  Either here in the comments on your own somewhere.

 

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Author Interview – Bill Ciccotti “”

I have gotten to know some other writers over the last couple years.  To break up the sound of my own voice on this blog, I thought I’d ask them to answer a few simple questions about their most recent work and how they create.
This month is an author I met in a professional setting.  I just finished doing the audiobook narration for Bill Ciccotti.  The book is “The Dead Never Sleep – The Long Walk II“.  It’s available at Audible.com.
Bill is a fairly prolific author, with titles covering adventures in Key West, the Old West, WWII and more.  He struck me as an interesting addition to the series.
1. Introduce Yourself – I an not a retired NAVY SEAL, but do have an overactive imagination and a lifetime full of wild adventures that may have been embellished (slightly?) in my books. I did lose my job but found another. As well as a love for writing.
2. And now introduce your book –  This book is based on a factual trip and altercation in Canada. My best friend Brian (AKA Ryan) and I have had some wild times and more than a few road trips, including Cuba. The Ukrainian Club  9 theme has been used in all my Key West books. It started as a light side note but morphed into a book of its own, To Russia Without Love is the story of two friends who have been hounded over the years by the Russian mob. All over a bar fight in Canada. After death attempts and destruction of my boat and Ryan’s home, we decided to head to Russia after those tattoo thugs and finish this once and for all.
3. Why did you write this book? Why write the book? Because I love writing and I have a funny storytelling ability, The driving force in writing, for me is to put all these wild storied down before they are forgotten. Also hopefully sharing these adventures with others and putting a smile on their faces as they read my books or listen to the great audio production. My inspiration is my life. I have had a lifelong friend in Brian and out adventures in craziness have fueled my imagination with the raw basis of these great tales.
4. What was the hardest part of writing this book?  The greatest challenge was spelling. Thank God for spellcheck. I have a vivid imagination. And great memory of a wonderful life. all of this makes writing easy for me. 

5. What do you hope your readers get from your book?  I hope my readers get a smile out of my books and audios. Laughter is underrated.

6. What are you proudest of about your book?  I am proudest about being able to read my works several times and still laugh at what I have come up with. I have written many books Some I am not so proud of but as I wrote more, I have improved greatly and smile a lot more
7. Other writers and some readers are fascinated by the writing process.  Please describe yours.My writing process is come up with an idea. Then figure a storyline. Then concentrate on each individual part of the story presented in each chapter. One small section or step at a time. Rewrite often. Reread it often. Switch out parts you don’t like, add inspiration from life experiences. Change the names of your friends if they are characters. But not enough that people who know them wont recognize who you are talking about.

Never delete anything. Save it all in files on your computer for later possible se. Maybe that same book or a future one.

8.  Who or What Inspires You? My inspiration is my life and friends. I have led a wild life and have a handful of true friends. Ryan is Brian, my best friend for over 50 years. Use reality, then embellish the hell out of it.
9. Are There Any More Books Coming? Many more books in the future. Several completed, and a few being worked on as we speak. The ideas never stop. Think wild. Normal is overrated.
My books are available on Kindle, Paperback, and Audio Book format at Amazon.com. Check out my Author Page.

Short Stories – Seven Icelandic Short Stories

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

Seven Icelandic Short Stories

I’m trying to offer as much variety in this series as possible. So, when I saw this collection, I grabbed it. Something from a different literary tradition offers a great chance to expand horizons.

Keep Calm and Focus on the Short StoriesThere’s always a certain “loss” in a translation. Rhythms will change, idiomatic and colloquial phrases will suffer because they never make the transition cleanly. This translation seems very good. There are no awkward, overly formal English sentences which seem to be a telltale of bad translation.

The introduction offers a very interesting background to the stories. The idea that the Icelandic language remained largely unchanged from the 13th century to the 20th century fascinates me.

The stories are:

  • The Story of Audunn and the Bear (13th century) by Anonymous – The oldest known Icelandic short story. Language hasn’t changed since it was written.
  • A Dry Spell (1905) by Einar H. Kavaran – A story of death and sadness
  • The Old Hay (1909) by Gudmundur Fridjónsson – An old man can help all his neighbors if he is willing to give up something he has saved for years.
  • When I Was on the Frigate (1910) by Jon Trausti – A curious trip with a captain who might be mad.
  • Father and Son (1916) by Gunnar Gunnarson – A boy and his father are inseparable even in death.
  • The Fox Skin (1923) by Gudmundur G. Hagalin – A story of status and obsession
  • Laxness in New Iceland (1927) by Hallder Kiljan – A family leaves Iceland for the New World and aren’t impressed.

The stories that I keep coming back to are “A Dry Spell”, there is something about the sadness of this story.  “When I Was on the Frigate”, the image here was an Icelandic “Old Man and the Sea”. “Father and Son”, the amazing story of dedication at the core of the concept of family.

The Icelandic approach to the short story form is different than much of the Western European style. I’ve gotten criticism of some of my own stories that they are focused too much on a single moment or character. There seems to be an expectation of the classic novel format – exposition, rising action, climax, descending action, denouement. The classic model for this shows a steep rise and fall. It never felt that way in these stories. The action felt more “real”, coming at an even pace and without a dramatic climax. I came away with a feeling of calm from the stories. They give the reader something to think about rather appealing to emotion. On the whole, I found the experience different and interesting.

Another great collection of short stories to add to your list!

Writing – Flash Fiction

I came across an interesting challenge a couple months ago.

It said every writer should try working in six different writing forms.  The idea was that we should challenge ourselves.

To stretch creatively by stepping outside of our usual forms.

If memory serves it showed up in a forum that focused mostly on long-form writing, which would explain the choices.  They are:

  • Poetry
  • Six Word Story
  • Flash Fiction (50-1k words)
  • Short Story
  • News Article
  • Opinion Piece

I’m always up for a creative challenge, so let’s give it a try.

This month I’m trying my hand at Flash Fiction.  Now some folk who have read my short stories will complain that I write a lot of flash fiction already.  That’s not the way I think of them so I’m going to ignore that charge.  The reality is that trying to get a clear definition of flash fiction is much like nailing jello to a tree.  In the original challenge (above) you’ll see that it’s anything from 50 to 1,000 words.  That’s ludicrously large from my point of view.  I needed a word count that I thought would offer both a challenge and enough room to make it interesting.  Why 100 words?  Why not?  Above that and you’re moving into the realm of the “short short”.  Any less than that and I find the storytelling a little thin.

So here’s my attempt (with an Afterword!)

Flash Fiction – 100 Words

Every day begins as a mystery. Drive to the building. Get there on time, get there on time!

Sign in, pick up a packet, a key, and ID badge. Out into the hall. The young people mill, huddle, and clump. They laugh, shout, or stare into a distance beyond. They don’t see you. Adapt, glide, moving toward your destination. Check the room numbers and the hall signs. This hall? No, the next.

Juggle your backpack, lunch, and the keys. Open the door. Find the lesson plan. Honors class, period three!

Mystery solved. An easy day.

“Hey, we got a sub!”

 

I’ve been substitute teaching for just over a year now, and it’s an interesting kind of gypsy life.  This is the second story I’ve written about it.

Feel free to jump right in.  Let me know what you think.

Peace

J

 

Author Interview – Stewart Smith “The Van Dammage Report”

I have gotten to know some other writers over the last couple years.  To break up the sound of my own voice on this blog, I thought I’d ask them to answer a few simple questions about their most recent work and how they create.
First up is Stewart Smith, author of the “Van Dammage Report Vol.1”.  In addition to being brilliant, good looking and extremely knowledgeable about movies, Stewart is also my cousin.  Despite having so much in common, we disagree on movies at times.
1. Introduce Yourself – Born in Louisiana but consider myself a Texan. Father. Husband. Cinephile. Award-winning film critic. Addicted to video games. Spent a decade as a journalist before venturing off into the world of non-journalistic writing.
2. And now introduce your book –  Van Dammage Report Vol. 1 is a comprehensive look at the films of international action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, beginning with his first starring role in No Retreat, No Surrender in 1986 to his widely-acclaimed dramatic performance as a quasi-biographical version of himself in 2008’s JCVD.
3. Why Van Damme? Because for years I considered him and his films to be a joke. But I found myself being drawn back to them again and again until eventually I started to see beyond the elements I considered ironically entertaining and realized there was actually more going on than I gave him or the films credit for. Then I found him legitimately entertaining. His persona, fighting style and choice of characters set him apart from the majority of the action stars of his day and I find all of that fascinating now.
4. I’ve never watched a single JCVD movie, where should I start? Best place for anyone to start is near the very beginning of his career. You can’t go wrong with either Bloodsport or Kickboxer. Both are great showcases for his martial arts ability but also his unique acting charms. Many consider Bloodsport still to be his best movie, but I’m of the opinion that Kickboxer is a more robust “JCVD experience.” Its fight scenes are better and it also has a greater array of elements that you’ll see are integral to the types of films and characters that Van Damme is drawn to.
5. What was the hardest part of writing this book?  The hardest part was just sitting down and cranking it out. It’s (almost) always a pleasure to sit down and watch a new Van Damme movie I’ve never seen before (and most of these pieces are based on my first time watching the film). But like any writer, procrastination is often my worst enemy. If I had really put my nose to the grind I could have had this book released at least a couple years ago.
6. What are you proudest of about your book?  First and foremost, I’m mostly proud of just getting this thing finished and published. I’ve published countless writing assignments before thanks to my years as a journalist, but this is the first personal project I’ve ever finished. As for the content, there are at least a couple entries where I feel like I truly brought something to the table in terms of analysis and consideration of Van Damme’s work. Your mileage may vary, however.
7. Other writers and some readers are fascinated by the writing process.  Please describe yours.  My writing process involves sitting at my computer, opening up a fresh document, picking out what music I’m going to listen to (lately internet radio stations playing chillhop music has been incredibly helpful), getting a paragraph or so written and then goofing around on Facebook and Twitter for way, way, way too long before finally snapping back into concentration mode and getting another graf or so onto the page. Wash, rinse, repeat for as long as it takes to be productive. When writing analysis pieces like what this book contains, I’ll have a good idea of what I want to say and where I want to go, but I never outline or do any sort of real planning. 100 percent of what I wrote for this book is extemporaneous and stream of consciousness. And if that means I maybe miss a point or two that I had previously thought about touching on, oh well. Unless I feel it will drastically improve my points or just be a killer addition to what I’ve already written, rarely do I go back and make significant modifications. Generally, I trust my instincts and ability to flow in my writing that if I couldn’t find a way to add it in organically during that first draft, it probably doesn’t really need to go in.
8.  Who or What Inspires You? When it comes to film analysis, it may be a bit cliche’ to say it but I will forever consider Roger Ebert to be among the gold standard of how to write an informative and yet also entertaining piece. Reading capsule reviews by Pauline Kael is a tremendous primer on how to communicate a lot with only a few words. And if I could ever find myself writing an essay that contains even a fraction of the insight, humor, thoughtfulness, compassion, and wit of your average David Foster Wallace piece then I will consider myself a fully accomplished writer.
9. Are There Any More Books Coming? Yes! More books for sure. I definitely want to put out a Vol. 2 of the Van Dammage Report, but that will also require continuing to dig into his filmography, a process I intend to rev back up soon. I’m also trying to get back into writing a novel I’ve been chipping away at for a few years now.
You can find Van Dammage Report Vol. 1 on the Amazon Kindle store for $3.99:
https://www.amazon.com/Van-Dammage-Report-Stewart-Smith-ebook/dp/B07BCQRP94

Short Stories – The Suicide Club

This post is part of a year-long series about short stories.  Read about my “Year of the Short Story” HERE.

The Suicide Club by Robert Louis Stevenson (1878) – Three short stories that make up a longer narrative.  Originally published individually in London Magazine, they were later collected and put into book form.

Keep Calm and Focus on the Short StoriesSome may consider this entry a bit of a cheat for the year of the short story, but you’ll just have to deal with it.  About two years ago, I fell in love with Robert Louis Stevenson.  While I knew “Treasure Island” and “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde” (not a type, that is the name the author gave the story) from the movies, I had never read any of his books.  Once I did, I was hooked.  Stevenson writes with all the storytelling clarity I could ever hope to find.  His stories are quick and clever and never, ever drag.  Plus, in reading the original stories, I see how much has been left at the side of the creative road by the movies.  As wonderful as the stories are on the big screen, they are so much better on the page.

So I was quite excited to come across a short story collection from him.  These are murder mysteries center on two adventure-seeking gentlment, Prince Florizel of Bohemia and Colonel Geraldine.

The stories are:

  • “The Story of The Young Man With The Cream Tarts” – The two receive a curious invitation to a party, one with a dark and sinister foundation.  They will confront the Suicide Club and its death-dealing founder.
  • “The Story of the Physician and the Saratoga Trunk” – This time a young man returns to his hotel to discover a body in his bed.  The Suicide Club is back, and Florizel and Geraldine fight to save an innocent man.
  • “The Adventure of the Hansom Cab” – The final installment begins with a young former lieutenant being whisked off to a private party.  Guests are dismissed one by one till only a handful are left.  They will join in a final confrontation with the leader of the Suicide Club.

It’s fun and has all the tension you want from a good murder mystery.  Stevenson weaves another wonderful story.  The Prince’s name kept nagging at me.  I thought perhaps it was a reference to the Sherlock Holmes story “A Scandal in Bohemia”, but the Stevenson story predates it by more than a decade  Turns out Prince Lforizel of Bohemia is a character in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”.  This Victorian era version is the much more dashing and adventurous of the two

Another great collection of short stories to add to your list!

Writing – Six Word Story

I came across an interesting challenge a couple months ago.

It said every writer should try working in six different writing forms.  The idea was that we should challenge ourselves.

To stretch creatively by stepping outside of our usual forms.

If memory serves it showed up in a forum that focused mostly on long-form writing, which would explain the choices.  They are:

  • Poetry
  • Six Word Story
  • Flash Fiction (50-1k words)
  • Short Story
  • News Article
  • Opinion Piece

I’m always up for a creative challenge, so let’s give it a try.

This month I tried the Six Word Story.  The classic of this style is usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway (although it is virtually certain that he did not write it), which runs “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn”.  You can fill in all kinds of stories about that.

So here’s my attempt (with an Afterword!)

She is getting on a plane.

In the course of some Uber driving, I was thinking about this challenge.  A passenger told a story about having to get from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh before a special someone flew away.  He claims to have made the drive at 110+ mph in around 3 1/2 hours.  I’ll leave that to the imagination.

But his story popped this one into my head.  And yes, the first thing I thought of was “Love Actually”.

As before, you are invited to play along.  Either here in the comments on your own somewhere.