Literary Squirreling

hh-animals-squirrel-4Not to go all textual and English Lit 101 on you, but I’ve been thinking about some of the classics. And, well, about one classic writer in particular: Dickens.

Now, there is no other writer — with the possible exception of Shakespeare — more resented or reviled by generations of high school and college English students than Charles Dickens. Sadly, he is reviled not because of his writing, but because…well…none of us actually wanted to read Great Expectations at fifteen…and we certainly didn’t want to read Bleak House at nineteen. At those ages, a kid (a guy, at least) wants nothing more than sex and action…he certainly doesn’t want guilt and commentary and lit-crit homework.

But, when you get a bit older, and hopefully a bit wiser, things change. That’s when you go back and re-read. That’s when all the irritating assignments from your teen-age years start to make actual sense.

You all know I draw a lot of my mood and inspiration from songs and albums, from artists like Brian Fallon and Chuck Ragan and All Time Low and The Fray…I could go on for a very long time with that list, by the way. Well, a verse — and a specific line — from the group that is pretty much my current favorite got me to thinking…and to re-reading:

Well I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow
And as we float out into the ether, into the everlasting arms
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life

—Gaslight Anthem, “The ‘59 Sound”, SideOneDummy Records, 2008

(Here’s a link to the regular song/video, if you’re interested — there are also acoustic versions that I actually like even more)C63D9EB7-59DA-4E2F-88CE-410E84810D4F

Okay, so what the hell am I on about, then? Marley’s chains…

I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.

I’m pretty sure we all have some of those freaking chains. I know I do. Whether those chains are, like Marley, those of greed and a slavish devotion to profit above all, or are ones that keep you tied to the manifold other idiocies to which we humans are so susceptible, we all have failings we are going to regret when we die…

Which was the point of the whole damned story.

It wasn’t about Tiny Tim, it wasn’t about Christmas, it wasn’t even really about Scrooge…and, God knows, it damned-well WASN’T an allegorical warning about “government interference in business” as one jack-ass columnist tried to argue! It was a story about the willing enslavement under which we put ourselves, and about second chances.

Any one of us could be Jacob Marley, could be Scrooge himself. But…ask yourself this: just who is the real “hero” of the story?

Scrooge changed, yes. He learned and changed to escape the enslavement of greed, and the callous disregard for others that goes with it…but it was Marley who saved his ass. Marley — condemned to walk forever as a ghost, condemned to hear and bear forever the chains he made for himself — came back to save his one friend. He came back, when you get right down to it, to force his friend to change and escape a similar fate.

A Christmas Carol isn’t Scrooge’s story, its Marley’s…it’s the story of Marley and his chains. When you get right down to it, it’s about one miserable, damned soul saving another.

Shit…Dickens was writing anti-heroes before they were cool!

As a final thought: editors and agents will tell you (with good reason) to read as much of the recent work in your genre as is possible.  But don’t, for the love of all things writing, forget the classics!  The publishing world really is one of the most arrogant and self-obsessed industries in the world, and it very much is more than willing to dismiss every writer and work older than six months as “archaic” and “weak”.  Don’t be that person, don’t let that worldview define you.  The classics are, well, classic for a reason…make sure you are able (and willing!) to learn from everyone.

Your Lizard-Brain and You

If you don’t know what the title means, you’re probably not alone. Your “lizard-brain” is that primitive, subconscious bit at the back of your mind that gives voice to life’s little red-yellow-green warning system:F0D5E211-18AC-4EF3-9D88-EBCF0841AD1A fight it — run from it — mate with it.

That’s pretty much all there is to life as a lizard.

I like it.

“Hey, look: a big bear!” Yellow…run like hell!

“A drunk douchebag screwing with people?”  Red…punch away.

“A hot blonde with long legs and a love of beer?” Green…oh, so very GREEN!

Ahh, the simple life….

And, of course, the best answer is always green: mate with it.

You have to take a broad view here, but stay with me: you walk down the aisle of your local supermarket and see a pack of Oreos on sale. What do you do? What does your lizard-brain tell you to do?

The boring people hit Yellow Alert and head for the next aisle. The obnoxious folks hit Red Alert and tell everyone around them just how evil are Oreos, and how they will end all life on Earth.

The good folks? The real, honest folks? It’s Green all the way. Oh, I don’t mean you’re gonna buy that damned package of cookies dinner and drinks, but…well…if you’re anything like me, a little part of you wants to just roll around naked in a huge pile of the things…


Never mind.

I am currently, it must be said, indulging my lizard-brain to its full extent: I’m sitting in the taproom, writing. The board is all Green, and we’re ready to go!

Word processor? Check.0C2242BA-2FCF-4416-8D51-B4F3762EAE78

Music? Check.

Beer? Mate with it! Err….Check.

If engineering and physics and all the other “intellectual” vocations are about denying that little lizard at the back of your mind, then writing is all about embracing it. Writing is all about impulse and emotion and what “feels” right. When you get right down to it, writing is all about the lizard.

So, the next time you sit down to write…or the next time you sit down to think and conceive and plan — EMBRACE THE LIZARD!

God, I love this job…

The Loss of a Titan

IMG_0720One of the all-time greats is gone: Ursula LeGuin has died, and the world of sci-fi & fantasy — hell, the world in general — is far the poorer for it.

As a kid, I didn’t care if my favorite writers were men (Zelazny, Heinlein, etc…), couples (David & Leigh Eddings), or women (Cherryh, LeGuin…), I just loved to read.  Hell, did it matter to me that Samuel Delaney was a gay, black man?  No, not then…and not now.  The man could write, and that was all that counted…

I never thought then about who my favorite writers were, but now…now, I know so much more.  That’s why I call LeGuin one of the true titans: Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books that anyone who wants to claim a breadth of knowledge and experience needs to read.  It is not only brilliantly written, but is also one of those key stories that is about far more than it is “about”.

LeGuin, when you get right down to it, could flat-out write. She wrote with an honesty, and an energy and strength, that are damned near perfect.  Her career, beginning in the 60’s when women “didn’t write sci-fi/fantasy,” very much helped to change the landscape.  She had an effect then, and is still doing so now.

Hell, even those to whom the 90’s and 00’s are “ancient history” owe her a massive debt: you would not likely have Harry Potter without the Wizard of Earthsea series…

LeGuin lived to a great age, and had a life of success and influence, but her death is still a blow.   As great a blow as the early losses of Douglas Adams and Roger Zelazny, as great a blow as the losses of the likes of Dick, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury and Heinlein.

That pantheon of the true greats is getting awfully thin on the ground…and I’m struggling to find the new writers who can truly fill their shoes.  Oh, there are very good writers out there, writers with talent and vision and a true gift, but who can truly stand among those names who are gone?  Gaiman…Cherryh…Butler…

A few, there are, that I think could also rise to be among that pantheon, but they aren’t quite there yet: Scalzi…Rothfuss…Sanderson…Stephenson…*

*Great, so now I have a new challenge; it’s time to go hunting for new writers, and new greats.

But the one thing I ask — hell, the one thing I demand — is that those writing now acknowledge and understand the debt we owe to the past.  As writers and dreamers and creators, we stand on the shoulders of giants…and yet one more of those giants is gone.

Be at peace, LeGuin, and rest well, you have earned it.  And thank you.