Category Archives: Personal

Work is a tonic

Earlier this year my 6 year-old was going through a rough patch. Normally she’s a sweet, compliant child, but day after day she’d been yelling at her mother, stamping her feet, pouting, sullen, untalkative, pushing her little brother down … so on a Friday night, I told her come next morning, we were going to burn that right out of her.

Got her up early. We ate breakfast in the dark and went over to the farm. I needed to clear the pivot pit of all the elm saplings that had grown up the last few years. We stopped by the Merc on the way for a pair of kid work gloves. One of those miserable Nebraska winter days, no snow and 50 mph winds, so that the dust gritted in your teeth and the corn husks felt like fastballs when they smacked into you. Temp hovering in the single digits. I gave her a pair of shears and pointed out the lines of little elm saplings and said, go to work. Gave her no directions beyond that.

She worked without a single complaint for 3 hours in that blistering cold. Stacked the saplings up neat (neat as was possible in that wind) and hauled them over to the pickup. Then we hauled all those damn elms including the ones I cut down to the burn pile and returned to the pit to admire our work. She did a good job and I told her so.

Then we went into town to a local joint for a cheeseburger and a milkshake and talked about everything under the sun. And in the meantime, the little demon girl was gone. Burnt out.

Work’s a tonic.

A writer is paid in hope – interview at Dark Sky

Brad Green and I had a conversation over at Dark Sky about writing, the expat life, and how a struggling writer is paid not in currency, but in hope.

The real cost of taking a real shot at the writer’s life isn’t the lost income (although there’s that, too), but in what Taleb calls the subtle humiliations at the watercooler. Faulkner pointed out fifty years ago that the writer has no place in American society. Little has changed since then, other than the growth of MFA-sponsored refuges, and your only choice as a writer is to keep on working. And hope.

Maybe you’ll get your big break, maybe you’ll get published in The Paris Review, get a hotshot agent, or sell 10,000 copies of your self-published Kindle book. But don’t count on it. As Taleb says, you may spend years working for a grand vindication that will never come.

If you are a struggling writer, you are not paid in currency. You are paid in hope.

Please head on over to Dark Sky and have a look.

Interview in the Star-Herald

My local newspaper, the Star-Herald, and its sister publications, ran a nice article on me today. Pretty good boiling down of why I came home: for family and the land.  Wish the novel was published, rather than still in “goal” stage.  Well, I’m working on it.  Just have to get an agent to agree that it’s worth putting out there in the world.

I rambled on and on in the interview, but thankfully it doesn’t show.  No doubt there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

As an aside, during the course of the interview I mentioned half a dozen or more authors to whom I am indebted.  The only one to make the papers was Faulkner.  Coincidentally, I ran across a link this morning that listed the ole Dixie Express as the greatest writer of all time (ahead of Shakespeare, Milton, Nabokov, Homer, Dickens, Dante, and Doestoyevsky).  I wouldn’t list him so high, I don’t think, even if he is my personal favorite, but it was some good synchronicity nonetheless.

The writer, Katie Bradshaw, blogs about Wyobraska here.

Abandoning paradise

I abandoned “paradise” in Thailand to come home to the high plains. Why? I am sometimes asked.

Well, it’s like my grandfather used to say: if I have to explain it to you, I can’t.

Now, this lady may be a Californian transplant who believes in an illusion of happiness, but she kind of can.


This is a picture of our household altar back in Thailand.


That’s a Rosary and Crucifix my grandmother made by hand out of Russian olive seeds draped round an Emerald Buddha.  From left to right in front, a plaster of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus, an amulet of the Holy Family from the Vatican, an image of a revered Thai monk, a Brahman charm from some shrine in Bangkok or possibly a street vendor, and a Shinto charm from Meiji Jingu in Tokyo.

As the Thais say, the more you have on your side, the better.

How I learned to concentrate (again)

Over at TeleRead, Chris Meadows recently wrote on the sapping of our attention spans. In between clicks away to gmail, Facebook, and Chris’s own links, I was just able to read through to the end, and the comments after.

Now perhaps I am merely mentally lazy and weak, as Steve Jordan suggests, but I don’t think reclaiming your attention span is strictly a matter of willpower, of just clicking things off. The networked world is more insidious than that. Mere willpower isn’t enough for me. I couldn’t just “turn stuff off”. But if I wanted to get some serious writing done, or even spend more time with my daughter, I had to.

I don’t even have a smartphone and almost never turn on the wireless function of my Kindle, but when I got a new super-duper fast laptop with wireless on it after arriving back in the States last year, the effect was very much like a sudden crack addiction. Mind you, on account of living in the Third World for some years, I hadn’t been exposed to a gradual build-up of all-the-time media. I just jumped straight into the pool. Before I knew it, I couldn’t even get through a meal without glancing at the laptop for some all-important update, 99.8% of which I couldn’t remember a day later. My attention span suffered. My writing suffered. My daughter learned to ratchet up the squeal volume to compete with the glowing screen.

It took me some months of grappling with the supercharged information monster before realizing that simple behavioral changes were required. I do some writing longhand, but most of the heavy-duty editing work occurs on the computer screen. Going analog was not an option. So, I resurrected and rejigged my old laptop, synced with the endlessly useful Dropbox, and now use it exclusively for writing. The reason: it’s painfully, painfully slow. With a 128k processor it takes a good two minutes to boot up even the google homepage with Chrome and it lacks wireless – you actually have to plug it into a wire to get online (which I do strictly to sync the docs I’m working on with Dropbox) which keeps my behind in the writing chair. It is an exercise in ritual self-humiliation to break away to Facebook or gmail or RSS feeds or whatever. This is enough to cause you to reflect and stop yourself. As opposed to my other laptop, where the time-wasting temptations of the internet are always only one, swift click away. I couldn’t will myself into stopping the online skipping around. But I can sure frustrate myself into it.

The other thing I did which has proved enormously helpful in improving my concentration was winnow down my RSS feeds. In a pure exercise of Darwinian survival of the fittest, I cut these down to the absolute essentials – the NY Times, A Hank Williams Journal, a few blogs of friends and writers, TeleRead. I used to spend hours chasing around interesting links on BookForum and The Awl and Ars Technica and etc. But now I quickly come to the end of the linkage, at which point boredom sets in … at which point I can return to work, satisfied at having taken a good survey of a select few of the world’s happenings, without drowning in a ceaseless sea of updates.

Also, while I don’t dispute that immense value of Twitter, I’ve so far avoided both using it and following folks. This is because I know myself: I’d be right back on the crack, and it might be days before my daughter got fed again.

Somewhat ironically: thusly unplugging myself from the matrix has freed up a lot of time for one its primary benefits: ebooks. With a good chunk of my time no longer sucked into the linky rabbithole, I’m reading a lot more. My Kindle has a large backlog of books acquired willy-nilly when I was downloading everything in sight. Although this backlog has to compete with a stack of paper books, I do plan on getting through some of them relatively soon. I’ll post on them here as I do.

Note: This originally appeared at TeleRead.