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. 

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.

Hey Muse, Where the Frack are You?

Trouble with Apocalypse Nation today. That’s the title of my zombie book, by the way. Possible reasons:

The muse is not just a myth. She is not with me today.

I’m struggling with the subject matter and my identity as a writer (whatever that means) and whether or not I can be literary and have fun, too.

The end seems like a long way off and maybe too far.

Short stories are more fun, but no one wants them. C’mon ‘Merica… learn to like the short story.

I’m making my undead story too complicated. Can’t I just write about brains and stuff? How come I have to have business and politics and religion in there too? Give your characters some guns, let them go crazy. Enough with trying to figure out who they “are.” They are zombie killers, period. Right?

They aren’t just zombie killers. I want to like them. Even the zombies. I want to like them too. Grrrrr.

I hate calling them zombies. In the book, they’re never called zombies, by the way. Of course, in Part three, which I haven’t got to writing yet, the Haitians will explain the difference between zombies and what I’ve created. I’m actually looking forward to writing the Haitian characters. Kick ass zombie-hunters, I think.

I wish I could write the Haitian scenes now. But I’ve never been able to write out of order. I have to wait till I get to them. Boooooooo!

Normal ups and downs of writing. I spent six months starting and restarting the fourth part of The Aurora Project. Finally, it clicked and I wrote the damn thing. Anyone out there know an agent or editor that wants to look at a very cool novel of apocalypse and renewal that covers six thousand years?

Too much world. One of the reasons I’m the writer I am and not the writer I imagined myself to be is that I’ve never been willing to put the writing first. There’s simply too many important things taking up space and an unwillingness on my part to ignore those things. Family. Community. Livelihood. I’m thinking more about those things today.

Wondering if zombies are a worthy subject. It sounds snooty, I know, but zombies, really? The subject is so very different than anything I’ve written before. Am I writing it simply because I want to buy a private island? I’m only half joking when I mention private islands. I tried to get James Patterson to give me one of his, but he’s greedy. It was a small island, too. Hardly any trees. But nooooooo….

Maybe it’s just too humid to write?

Solar flares?

Fear of contracting bedbugs?

Not enough peanut butter in daily intake?

Always with the stupid writerly doubt?

Stupid writerly doubt! Hate it so much (shakes fist).

Writing is stupid anyway.

The future is here. Writing is dead.

What? Shut up and write.

Looking over my shoulder…

In my office, I have a painting from my late friend, Jon Travis. I’ve been recording myself reading my stories and today as I was taping, I noticed Robert Mitchum, from Jon’s rendition of Night of the Hunter peeking over my shoulder. I put the painting there because I’ve always liked it, ever since I first saw it at Jon’s show at the old Elvis Room in Portsmouth, not because I needed a watchful presence to keep me working. When I bought the painting from Jon, about six months before he died, he said he wanted a hundred bucks for it. When I gave him the money, he said, “You know how much money I’ve made off my art in the last ten years?” I didn’t know. “A hundred bucks,” he said. And yet he never once stopped creating. How much more of an artist can you be? No one buys your work and still you work. Jon used to tell me, when I was struggling with writing, that I needed to let go of knowing where the stories would end up, and just write something. That’s what I try to do these days. It was a nice reminder to see Jon’s Mitchum back there on the wall. Mitchum is the right guy looking over my shoulder. He’s sort of scary, but sad, too. You know that if you get on Mitchum’s good side, he’ll be a friend for life.