Happy Birthday Mr. Whitman



A day to celebrate one of the greats. I have above my door a sign that reads: “What Would Walt Whitman Do?” I ask myself this all the time. Usually, the answer is: write something. He is a writer that leads me to many epiphanies. Here are some excerpts from his great poem, “Song of Myself.”


I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of beginning and the end,

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.


I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and the women,

And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,

And ceas’d the moment life apprear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Has anyone supposed it is lucky to be born?

I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it. 


I pass death with the dying and birth with the new washed’d babe, and am not contained

between my hats and boots,

And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,

The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.


Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,

For me those that have been boys and that love women,

For the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,

For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,

For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,

For me children and the begetters of children.


Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale, nor discarded,

I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,

And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.


I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,

Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,

Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,

Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,


I resist any thing better than my own diversity,

Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,

And am not stuck up, and am in my place.


I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.


The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.


I depart as air, I shake my white locks under the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift in lacy jags.


I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.


You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.


Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere, waiting for you. 

Old #poems #amwriting #amrevising #amlooking

While I was looking for another piece of writing tonight, I found a poem I wrote about my grandmother a long time ago. I sort of liked it. I revised it a little and liked it even more. Here it is, along with the photo that inspired it:grandma

A Surprising Photograph of Grace Milvada Caroline Matilda Robison

She told stories:

The Linotype was a dangerous

Machine. If you weren’t careful,

It would take your arm at the elbow,

A little careless daydreaming;

She was pulled from the sixth grade

When influenza took her mother;

She had wanted to be a teacher

But never returned to school;

Her husband almost killed a bull

After it chased her across the pen;

The bull smelled his anger,

Stayed away till dark;

During a draught, it rained

Directly on their garden,

But left the house dry;

Ball lightning burst though the door,

Bounced through the kitchen

Before disappearing.

She thought mostly of going home,

Dropped twenty cents into a coin purse

And walked away in her nightgown,

A ghost inching down the road.

I have a photo of my grandmother

Standing atop the radiator of a Ford

In a bathing suit and swimming

Cap. It is a cracked, out-of-focus,

Yellow with age,

Her most crystalline surviving

Testament. The light surrounds her.

She is there, windmilling

Her arms to maintain balance

While the photographer says,

“One more second, I’ve almost got it!

Stay right where you are!”

Likable characters? Unlikable? Which is Better? “#amreading #amwriting

There has been a lot of debate in the writing world over the last few weeks about what sort of fictional characters are best: likable or unlikable. I have no idea. But here’s what I’m looking for.

What I’m looking for:


I like characters that come to me with all they own in plastic bags.

I like characters that like me because I like them and together we are likable and like the world.

I like characters that sing in the night after the fires go out.

I like characters that get out of the book and tuck me in at night and whisper to me that all will be well unless, of course, it isn’t. And, they say, it never is.

I like characters who drink liquors at inappropriate times.

I like them when they yell at other likable characters. I even like them when they are unlikable or mean to their mothers and the poor. But not if they kick dogs.

I like characters that swim upstream against the different drummer and they all have beats that overlap and metaphors that balk against being metaphors.

I like characters that plot. And scheme. And sometimes use poisons most foul.

I like characters that sneak up behind the innocent and bury axes in skulls.

I like characters that come unglued when they see the word fuck scrawled somewhere.

I like characters that would hate me if they ran into me. I love you, I’d say. Go pound sand, they’d say.

I like characters that have superpowers but don’t realize it and never use them, not even once. But you have superpowers, I’d say. What are you talking about? they’d respond.

I like characters that live innocently for years thinking that the world is beautiful and then are subjected to the awful realities of existence and come away from the experience still thinking that the world is beautiful.

I like characters that hope, even if they are hopeless and everyone sees their hopelessness flying out in every direction.

I like characters that starve themselves.

And gamble away the nest egg.

And send young soldiers to their deaths.

I like characters that sneak into my kitchen and eat all my food and don’t even leave me a note of thanks.

I like characters that confront injustice only to find themselves being unjust.

I like characters that hit-and-run.

I like characters that lie.
I like characters that purposefully give me the wrong change when I buy gum and when I say, Hey, I gave you a ten, you owe me another five, they say, Sorry pal, go suck a lemon.

I like characters that drive trucks and dig ditches and when they get done with their hard labors, they like to play pool and drink beer and sometimes fight another character that also drives a truck or plays pool.

I like dubious types.

I like lecherous men and loose women.

And their virtuous counterparts.

I love a thief.

The more secrets the better.

Give me your troubled.

Your misfits.

Your unloved and lonely.

That’s who I’m looking for.


#Amwriting today instead of grading papers. Oops.

Yes, I have a lot of papers to read before I’m officially done with the semester. But I’ve been writing instead. I’m still attempting to sell my zombie-ish book, Apocalypse Nation, but I’m already neck deep in the new novel. Last week, I semi-plotted (which is more plotting than I normally do) the story and ever since then, I’ve been able to imagine the entire thing in a different way. I even have the final image of the book–something to work toward.

Being charged up about a writing project is not a normal sensation for me. Last week, for instance, I had one superb writing day in which the words seemed to flow in messy abandon (messy, because it’s a draft and because I draft longhand) and I woke up the next day ready to write and when I sat down to the notebook, I felt defeated before I even started. I let my day-to-day life get in the way and suddenly the task was too daunting, too far off, too pointless, too…blah. I don’t consider it writer’s block, because I don’t really know what writer’s block is, but all I wanted to do that day was quit writing forever because I knew no one would ever read my work again ever in the history of the world.

But that’s nonsense.

I’ve been doing Bikram yoga for about a year and half now and it’s a demanding, sweaty, and intense 90 minutes of yoga. It’s always a challenge. Some days, I go in thinking I can’t do any of the postures correctly, that I’m too weak or too unfocused, but I try anyway. Some days, halfway through the class, my brain starts telling me that I’m too tired or zonked or distracted to do the next posture, but I attempt the posture despite what my brain says (or at least I try to set up the posture). Sometimes, I’m actually too zonked and need a little rest, so I take off part of a posture and try again on the next one. The teachers often say two things that I’m trying to incorporate into my life: “Just do your yoga” and “Relax, it’s just yoga.” At first, hearing “Just do your yoga” felt a little slogan-y for me, like something Nike would say if they were into yoga instead of ruling the world of footwear. But now, it completely makes sense. At first, hearing “Relax, it’s just yoga” seemed a little strange in such an intense class, but now I’m starting to see (or feel) what they mean. It’s not “perfect,” it’s “practice.” I have to practice each day in order to get the benefits. The yoga advice is the same advice I give to my writing students each class–“Just write” and “Relax, write.” Don’t worry about perfecting your writing, just write. Don’t bear the weight of the world on your pen, breathe and write. Simple advice, remarkably difficult to follow. It reminds me of the wonderful last paragraph of John Gardner’s completely essential book, On Becoming a Novelist. If you want to write, it’s the warmest, most down to earth explanation of what it means to practice writing. You simply must read it. Here is its wonderful and resonant final paragraph:

tumblr_m9ezkxBaiO1qced37o1_1280“Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or a “way,” an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious – a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand – and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

To sum up: Do your yoga. Put your butt in the chair and write. Breathe.

The Power of Place/#Kickstarter

609d3bd965468097fb4ed01b4a90ba7e_largeTo anyone who lives in NH or loves the beauty of the place only as a visitor, please consider backing this project. There are only a couple of days left to reach the funding goal and it’s such a worthy and important cause–it is going to chronicle the incredible landscape of our state and it’s potential destruction by energy companies–not only for NH but for other states facing the same sorts of issues as our need for energy brings massive changes to our ways of life around the country.

Here is the link to Kickstart the Power of Place… http://kck.st/XBXrnC

#Amwriting and it feels right…

I didn’t expect to fall so quickly into a new novel. I really wanted to write some short stories. But that has not happened. I wanted to spend a lot of energy trying to interest someone in Apocalypse Nation, but I haven’t been able to drum up the enthusiasm. Today, I plotted out in an incredibly loose fashion, the large storyline to the new book. It took maybe fifteen minutes. And after I plotted, I started writing. Today was one of those rare days when the writing flowed. I hated that I had to stop writing. That’s the opposite of most of my writing days. Onward and outward, indeed.


Thoughts on persistence from William Kennedy

A bit of advice on persistence in writing from William Kennedy, author of, among many other books, Ironweed, Very Old Bones, and The Flaming Corsage. If I can sum up what Mr. Kennedy says in eight words, it would be: Put your ass in the chair and write.

kennedy_picI used to say  on Thursday afternoons when I was on my day off from the Albany Times Union and I was waiting for the muse to descend and I discovered that it was the muse’s day off too: you have to beat the bastards. I didn’t even know who the bastards were, but you have to beat somebody. You have to beat your own problematic imagination, to discover what it is you’re saying and how to say it and move forward into the unknown. I always knew that a). I wanted to be a writer and b). if you persist in doing something, sooner or later, you will achieve it. It’s just a matter of persistence–and a certain amount of talent. You can’t do anything without talent, but you can’t do anything without persistence, either. Bellow and I once talked about that. We were talking just in general about writing and publishing and so on, and he said there’s a certain amount of talent that’s necessary. After that, it’s character. I said, What do you mean by character? He smiled at me and never said anything. So I was left to define what he meant that night. What I concluded was that character is equivalent to persistence. That you just refuse to give up. Then, the game’s not over. You know, I had an enormous success in everything I’d done in life…up until the time I decided to be a writer. I was a good student; I was a good soldier; I was good at this and that. I got a hole-in-one one day one the golf course. I bowled 299, just like Billy Phelan. I was a very good newspaperman. I became a managing editor. Anything I wanted to do in journalism, it seemed to work; it just fell into place. So I didn’t understand why I was so successful as a journalist and yet zilch as a novelist and a short story writer. It was just that time was working against me. You just have to learn. It’s such a complicated craft…such a complicated thing to understand what you’re trying to bring out of your own imagination, your own life.

At the End of the Semester. What is an essay?

In my composition classes, we have a semester long conversation about what an essay is and how best to write different forms of essays. Alan Lightman, in his introduction to the Best American Essays 2000, puts it pretty succinctly: horn_lightman_post

“When I’m reading a good essay, I feel that I’m going on a journey. The essayist is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observation and facts. The facts are important, but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move. Even the facts of the essayist’s own history, the personal memoir, are insufficient alone. The facts of personal history provide anchor, but the essayist then swings in a wide arc on his his anchor line, testing and pulling hard.

I suppose that in the end, the real subject of an essy is the essayist. Not the bald facts of autobiography, on the one hand, or the bald opinions about issues, on the other, but some kind of union between the inner person and the outer world, a melding of internal and external, the life and mind of the essayist in reaction to the universe. The essayist cannot examine the world without examining herself, and she cannot examine herself without examining the world.”

Writing Advice from William Saroyan

william-saroyan-3Here is some of my favorite writing advice, from the Preface to the First Edition of William Saroyan’s book, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.

“If you write as if you believe that ultimately you and everyone else alive will be dead, there is a chance that you will write in a pretty earnest style. Otherwise you are apt to be pompous or soft. On the other hand, in order not to be a fool, you must believe that as much as death is inevitable, life is inevitable. That is, the earth is inevitable, and people and other living things on it are inevitable, but that no man can remain on the earth very long. You do not have to be melodramatically tragic about this. As a matter of fact, you can be as amusing as you like about it. It is really one of the basically humorous things, and it has all sorts of possibilities for laughter. If you will remember that living people are as good as dead, you will be able to perceive much that is very funny in their conduct that you perhaps might never have thought of perceiving if you did not believe that they were as good as dead.

The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to be breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you slew, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”