The Book I Want to Read

brain1-e1312872869675-281x300I thought about a couple of topics for today. I even had a couple of posts worked up in my mind. Then my brain turned into old cheese, and…well…there ain’t much left in there at this point in time.

Erm…

Okay, so instead of trying to dredge up those sparkling, all-star, award-winning — and lost — ideas, I’ll just go with what I was thinking about as I drove to the coffee shop this morning: a book I wish had been written.

This whole train of thought came about after reading some interviews with Robert Jordan from a few years ago. Now, Jordan* is most famous for passing away with 3 books remaining in his 14-volume magnum opus, The Wheel of Time, but he was a man who most definitely was far more than “just” a massively successful fantasy writer. More on that later.

*A pen name, by the way, but I’ll stick with it as that is how he is best known. Yay for all us pen-name users!

WoT is a great series, by the way, even if it can be infuriating as hell, even frustrating at times. Jordan’s talent as a writer puts him solidly among the very few at the top of the mountain. It also happens to be a favorite of mine; I’ve read those 4+ million words several times, in fact…

But the story of the Dragon Reborn and the White Tower (and all the dozens of other subplots) is NOT the story Jordan set out originally to write. No, the original vision of the story was about an old soldier returning home from his final war. It was a story intended to be about his efforts to rebuild a life, and a spirit, all-but destroyed by war…only to be forced to take part in yet one more fight.

I want to read that story. I want to read about that old soldier.* I want to read Jordan’s insights and emotions on that topic. I want to read it not because of his undeniable talent as a writer, but because he lived it. Jordan’s take on the end of his time in Vietnam is chillingly honest and impactful, especially to those of us with friends and loved ones who have their own demons and memories of combat. Those words, and the wisdom behind them, get to the heart of who Jordan is as a man, and as a writer…and to the heart of the book I wish I could have read.

*Rand’s father, Tam, if you’re familiar at all with the Wheel of Time series.

Here is part of the passage about his time in Vietnam that I found so powerful:

I have, or used to have, a photo of a young man sitting on a log eating C-rations with a pair of chopsticks. There are three dead NVA laid out in a line just beside him. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t chose to sit there because of the bodies. It was just the most convenient place to sit. The bodies don’t bother him. He doesn’t care. They’re just part of the landscape. The young man is glancing at the camera, and you know in one look that you aren’t going to take this guy home to meet your parents. Back in the world, you wouldn’t want him in your neighborhood, because he is cold, cold, cold. I strangled that SOB, drove a stake through his heart, and buried him face down under a crossroad outside Saigon before coming home, because I knew that guy wasn’t made to survive in a civilian environment. I think he’s gone. All of him. I hope so.

I didn’t originally plan this post to be solely about Robert Jordan, and about Tam’s unwritten story, but the man has had a profound effect on me as both reader and writer…too great an effect, in fact, to shortchange. He is a major part of the reason — alongside Zelazny, Eddings, Cherryh, LeGuin, Feist, Tolkien and Heinlein — why I write sci-fi and fantasy. For that reason, among others, I owe him a debt I can never repay…

216D3D4C-DEC0-4D48-ACF1-622DAA638CCEPost Script:

This post, by the way, did touch off some thinking about a (necessary) follow-up. A follow-up that will take a great deal more thought, and more time, however, than I generally give to these posts. It’s going to be a post for which I will actually have to do research: the impact of (real) war on sci-fi and fantasy. Jordan wasn’t alone in having his battlefield experiences profoundly affect his writing: from Tolkien in the trenches in WWI, to Haldeman and Jordan (and a host of others) in Vietnam, the realities of combat have shaped some of the best works we have in the field…and that’s without touching on the all-time greats that I love, writers like Graves and Tolstoy and Wouk…

Updated: because I suck at editing.

Update #2: I didn’t think I had to explain — mostly because I buy into the writing theory that you explain only what you have to — but I’ve had a couple of private questions on the passage above, so here is the explanation I avoided before: the photo in question is of Jordan himself, and the “man” he killed is what he had become during the war…

A Bit of History

I’ve mentioned before that I do naval history on the side. I do some professional work within the area, yes, and more volunteer stuff, but mostly it is a personal passion of mine. Now, I may have mentioned that before, but I’ve never really written a post on anything naval (other than the Memorial Day post, which was inspired by one of my heroes: Earnest Evans — read that post here).

This is — technically — a writing(ish) blog, rather than a history or navy blog, but for me those things are completely and totally intertwined. Just as philosophy and literature and personal experience are wound inextricably through everything I create, so too is history.

The sci-fi universe I currently write within owes a great deal to the British empire…and even more to Britain’s East India Company — and all of the colonialism and shit that goes with that — but there are also echoes of many events and dynamics from the last two centuries. The fantasy stories fluttering around inside my head have even more history at their heart. From English nobles to Japanese samurai to Chinese bureaucrats, all come into play…

But I’m not a plot guy, I’m a character guy. Even more important to my writing is the inspiration that comes from the exceptional people history throws at you. Folks like William Marshall, or Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Tokugawa Ieyasu…the list goes on and on.

Okay, so why did I put together that (long) intro? Because two of the core elements of my “world” came together this morning when I was thinking about what to post: naval history, and the characters who can be (and are) inspired from it.

BD6E7E7C-24CD-4A16-AB0E-0396A8D878A3I’m not going to talk about the characters, however. No, I want to talk about, and celebrate, one of those extraordinary inspirations: Rear Admiral Alene Duerk.

The headline has already been written with Admiral Duerk’s position as the US Navy’s first female flag officer (here is the article that got me thinking). But as so often happens, that headline hides so much more…

Admiral Duerk started her professional life as a young nurse in WWII, including a long stint forward deployed in the Pacific. From sailors and Marines wounded on Okinawa, to US prisoners repatriated after the end of the war, she spent a great deal of time and strength and emotion amidst the chaos and suffering that comes from any war…and especially from the Pacific campaign of WWII.

But she wasn’t done.  No, she went on to train and teach others to do the same, to care for the wounded and dying of the Korean War.

And she kept serving.

Now, for some folks, that last line may mean little, but for me it means everything. Alene Duerk was a strong and capable woman who spent a lifetime in service to her patients, and to her country. To those who still resent the presence of women in the US armed forces, and especially in the navy (whether ashore or afloat), I have this to say: Admiral Duerk was not a woman “allowed into” the Navy. No, she was a talented and smart officer who earned every step of her journey.  Admiral Duerk was one of those quiet heroes most folks never get to hear about.

IMG_0720Fair winds and following seas, Admiral. There’s a drink on the bar for you…

Micro-Fiction Friday

 

1) Blue Eyes

He’s falling apart.  He’s late, and he hates it — late because the work never stops, and because the traffic is nothing but worse.  The stress makes him reach for a cigarette, even as he stomps the accelerator.

This is too important to be late.

The car’s controls are worked like a maestro.  If he’s late, he’s ruined.

A screech of the tires, and a winded sprint up the stairs.  His heart hammers as he runs.

He bursts through the door, flustered and sweaty and mouthing apologies.  The others simply shake their heads — his foibles are well known.

The job at hand is thrust at him, a package to be unwrapped and tended to.

He hesitates, afraid.  Afraid to touch, afraid to commit.  The “what ifs” wrack him, the visions of everything that could go wrong.  But the package won’t wait.  Not for him, not for anyone.

A twitch of his fingers and the wrappings are pushed aside.

The eyes open, tired and confused…oh so confused.

He is frozen, dominated.

Those blue eyes hint at everything in the world: at commitment, and at the pitfalls and emotions to come.

The eyes close, and he is released.

“Welcome, son,” he whispers.

 

2) Crossing the Line

Dozens of tattoos, Agwe had.  Every single one was a memory, a moment in his life.  And with every one, he’d felt the pain of the needle and ink as it marked his flesh. Drunk or sober, every tattoo was a memory that included the suffering of its creation.

Except this one.

This one was different.

For this one, he’d sweated and worked.  He’d suffered and been shaved.  He’d been covered in oil and sludge.  He’d kissed the Chief’s belly.  He’d earned his citizenship in King Neptune’s court.

The outline of the turtle on his arm was simple: incomplete and basic.

He remembered sitting on his bunk, remembered the hard-won pint of moonshine he’d paid to Schwartzie to memorialize the crossing.

The klaxon sounded, then, in his memory.  The pounding of feet, the sprint from his bunk to the gun.

A plane…grey and green and far too fast.

The noise, and the flame.  The frantic scrambling for Schwartzie’s arm.

His tattoo would never be finished, now.

 

3) Better

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  Desperation and hopelessness.  The bitter taste of failure. It was supposed to be better than this.

Wearing a cap and gown, he was told it would be better.

When he put the ring on her finger, he thought it would be better.

When he signed the divorce papers, he hoped it would be better.

When the layoff notice came, he prayed it could be better.

In the news, he heard all about how it was better.  Better, he knew, for someone else.  For everyone else.

It was supposed to be better than this.

 

Behind-the-scenes stuff:

1) “Blue Eyes” came from a one word challenge, to write about “elation” in 200 words. I wanted to play with expectations and characterization, especially given the darker microfiction pieces I’ve posted before. It’s hard to do a concluding “surprise” in under 200 words, but I did want to TRY.

2) “Crossing the Line” was a challenge from someone who knows my passion for naval history. Most folks hear the title phrase and think of doing wrong. But to a sailor…to a sailor it means something VERY different. I had 150 words to talk about pride, and tradition, and the camaraderie of those who sail grey-hulled ships in harm’s way.  Agwe’s story is stuck at 170 words…so this one, I failed. I still like the story, however.

3) “Better”  doesn’t really belong here, but…what the hell.  It doesn’t belong because, well it’s not a story…not really.  That being said, I wrote it in response to something I was given for this microfiction challenge, so I figured I would include it.  In this case, it was in response to a photo of a homeless guy.  What stood out to me in that photo was not the dirty clothes, nor the sign the guy was holding.  No, what truly stood out was his wedding ring.

 

Inspiration And Influence

C6ucM8rU0AI0vbtI’m pretty sure anyone who writes, or creates, can sympathize with this!

As an aside: greatest comic strip ever.  No, really…Calvin & Hobbes had it ALL: art, writing, humor, and the right touch of feeling and honesty.  Even more than the next two on my list — Bloom County and The Far Side —  Bill Watterson was a freaking genius.

Today’s strips?  That’s harder…Dilbert comes to mind…but that’s about the only one that really stands out at the moment.  Some of the web-comics are interesting, but nothing out there comes anywhere near those “top three”.

[Note – apparently Berkeley Breathed is drawing Bloom County again, via Facebook and GoComics … I haven’t yet had a chance to check it out, but that might very well be enough to get me to create a Facebook account…we’ll see.]

At any rate, due to lack of anything resembling coherent thought at the moment, I decided to call out some things that, well, just plain work for me.  Not necessarily things that are groundshakingly amazing, but things I admire…and learn from.

Simple, powerful prose is a wonderful thing, especially when it has a sense of humor.  From Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere:

“Richard found himself imagining the earl sixty, eighty, five hundred years ago: a mighty warrior, a cunning strategist, a great lover of women, a fine friend, a terrifying foe. There was still the wreckage of that man in there somewhere. That was what made him so terrible, and so sad.”

Dammit, but I love that passage.  As a character description? It is incredibly evocative, and paints a picture in a mere fifty words that well and truly nails the character.

Writers, they say, write.  Well, writers also read.  And in reading, they study and they learn…and, hopefully, they improve.

To stay on theme, here’s another passage*…one that nails its setting (London) in an equally effective way (actually, this quote is pulled from the single longest run-on sentence I can think of — don’t try that at home…not, at least, until you are as successful and well-known as Gaiman himself):

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces…”

*Can you guess what I’m re-reading right now?

Books are not the only thing from which to learn…not by a long shot.  I’ve talked enough about my love of music, even quoted from a few songs.  Well, there are some lyrics out there that are, quite simply, powerful.  As with good prose, good lyrics evoke and inspire…they make you think and question, and bring to mind thoughts and feelings far in excess of their few words:

“With everything discovered just waiting to be known,

What’s left for God to teach from his throne?

And who will forgive us when he’s gone?”

—The Gaslight Anthem, National Anthem

 

“With nothing left but a chord to stretch

And a word to get on by

Sometimes you reach for the bottle before the sky”

—Chuck Ragan, Nothing Left to Prove

There are dozens of additional examples I could give…an entire iTunes library, in fact, from which I could pull quotes and lines.  That’s not the point of this.  No, the simple point is this: words have meaning, and power.  Poetry and music just as much as prose.  Give yourself the time, and the reason, to study and to learn how others have harnessed that meaning, and that power.

Read the good and the bad, the new and the old…read to enjoy, but also to understand, and to learn.  There’s an old saying about “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Well, that applies to writing as much as to science: read what has been done, read what has worked, and take it onboard*.  Pull it all in, mix it around, and feed your own style…

*An interesting writing exercise I’ve heard about a few times (but have never done): instead of reading a story you truly admire, transcribe it.  The thought is that, by writing, you will internalize the structure and words in a way you would not through simply reading…  Hand-cramps and time aside, that is an interesting thought. If anyone out there has actually done the exercise, let me know how it worked!