Archive for September 30, 2008

Paul Newman

He’s on my mind today, so I thought I’d pass this along.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

Opening Sentence: Guess the Book . . . and More!

First, again, I’m just a little overwhelmed with things these days, so this blog hasn’t gotten the attention I’d like to give it. If I can work out some technical issues, I’ll be back with a wallop.

In the meantime, I’m rereading a book that begins with this sentence:

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.

Yes, eerie to find Paul Newman here so near the day of his passing. Is that a great opening sentence? Shrug, I don’t know. It’s certainly not bad. It doesn’t try to do too much, isn’t flashy, doesn’t attempt to foreshadow the action. But it does give us, I think, a strong introduction to a singular narrative voice. A voice that is sure of itself, and at the same time, idiosyncratic and surprising. An original voice. In that way, more than a voice, but the mind behind it. There’s freshness here. I’m willing to read about this character. So, come to think of it, heck yeah, that’s a great first sentence!

Do you recognize the book? I bet my friend, Nan Hoekstra, does.

* * * * *

I must be on a rereading kick these days, because I recently finished Frederick Exley’s dark drunken dyspeptic classic, A Fan’s Notes. (I’m of the opinion that if you read a book more than 20 years ago, it doesn’t count; it’s like you never read it, since “you” now have a vastly different perspective on things: the dynamic of the book-reader relationship has changed so much that it offers an entirely new experience.)

What incredible language from Exley, what astonishing sentences! I underlined full paragraphs, made stars and check marks on practically every page, scribbled notes in the margins, circled words, really marked it up. Time and again, he drove me to the dictionary: termagant, sibilant, galvanic, execrable, cachinnate, exiguous, exigent, asperity, apostrophized, piddle, and so on. Some of those words I sort of knew, but hadn’t fully absorbed into my own daily vocabulary. But there’s this: Sort-of-vaguely knowing a thing is a close cousin to Knowing Nothing at all, but even worse, since you’re tempted to pretend that you know something when, in fact, you haven’t the foggiest idea — or, strictly speaking, you DO have the foggiest idea!

As a professional writer, I don’t like to admit to not knowing words. That’s like a carpenter staring into a toolbox, not knowing what he’s looking at. What does this thing do? But it’s best, I guess, to admit what we don’t know and try to do something about it. Like Bob Dylan sang: “He not busy being born/Is busy dying.”

Also: I suppose I’m gearing up for something as a writer, by reading back-to-back-to-back first person narratives. I have an idea in mind — not for the book I’m doing, or even the one after that, but maybe for the one after that — where I’m about ready to attempt a first-person narrative. Of course, I’ve done it dozens of times with my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. But those books are young, and short, and don’t have the language and depth and dark I’d like to attempt. So reading these (and while I’m at it, I should reread, yet again, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye) inspires and instructs me for what I might attempt down the road. Writers learn by reading. Can you recommend other fine examples of first-person narratives? Anyone . . . anyone? . . . Doret . . . Liz . . . Bueller?

* * * * *

Lastly, I took a long drive to rainy Sunnyside on Sunday and listened to Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture on CD. I know it’s been a runaway best-seller and huge cultural phenomenon, and that I’m awfully late to the show, but I’m just saying: Wow. I had tears in my eyes for 135 miles, but not in a maudlin way. Highly recommended. Uplifting, wise, entertaining, awesome.


Sorry I haven’t posted this week. I have about a dozen different topics that are ready to go — ranging from drunk squirrels to adorable daughters — but I’m trying to get past a technical difficulty before I proceed.

In the meantime, just a reminder to my local readers, that’ll be at the Open Door Bookstore this Saturday from 1:00 – 2:30.

More, later. And my apologies for the lack of content.

Writing Process: Six Innings

I’ve never had a particularly good memory. Most of the details are lost, but essences remain. As a writer, those essential feelings are what feed my books.

However, when it comes to baseball, I do have startlingly vivid recollections. Here’s one of my favorites:

When I was little, I used to throw a rubber Spalding ball against the back of my house for hours at a time. I filled notebooks with imaginary lineups and kept score. I pitched against all the legends of the game, past and present. One week my grandparents came to watch over the horde (remember, I was the youngest of seven) while my parents were away. Now let it be known that Grandpa needed his afternoon naps. But whap, whap, whap, there was little Jimmy throwing that ball all day long.

Instead of getting mad, or forbidding me from doing what I loved, Grandpa went out and shocked me by buying a brand-new pitchback. It was the most beautiful, unexpected gift I ever received. Sploing, sploing, sploing — now I hurled hard baseballs, real baseballs, almost soundlessly against the net. While Grandpa napped contentedly.

Like many boys, I played out fictional games in my imagination. And I talked to myself in a half-whispered mumble, announcing the action: “Jerry Koosman into the windup . . . it’s a hard smash back to the box . . . Koosman snares the line drive . . . inning over . . . the Mets win!”

Reflecting back, I realize those were the first stories I ever told, the beginnings of my life as a writer, working through a fictional narrative, juggling a variety of characters, with the game itself neatly providing its own beginning, middle, and end.

In Six Innings, I gave that experience to a minor character, Max Young, who finds himself on the mound during a crucial spot in the 6th inning:

The relief pitcher, Max Young, is not nervous. He has been in spots like this hundreds of times before . . . with one important difference. It was never the real thing.

For years, Max stepped into his backyard, walked off the proper distance from his pitchback, and entered the limitless realm of his imagination. He played fantasy games in his very own field of dreams. And all the while, Max talked to himself, taking on the voice of the radio sportscaster. Somehow the words made it real. In a barely audible whisper he’d murmur: “Leading off for the Legends team, it’s Tyrus Raymond Cobb. The Georgia Peach . . . .

I’m convinced that hundreds of thousands of boys have done and still do the same thing. I see them on driveways everywhere, bouncing a basketball, looking up at the net, their lips moving, the hushed words bringing a story to life.

Later in the book, with everything on the line, there’s Max again, with a touch more poetry:

One last time, Max is alone in his daydreams, throwing against an imaginary hitter in a game of his own invention. He is the author and the instrument, the pitcher and the ball, the beginning and the end.

Max rocks back into his windup, he drives forward, the ball leaves his fingertips, comes in high and hard and true.

Angel Tatis hits nothing but air. Swing and a miss.

Fan Mail Wednesday #13

Wednesday came round again this morning, slinking like a feral cat, ribs sticking out and hungry as always, but this time I was ready and now the cat’s in the bag. Today’s piece of mail isn’t technically fan mail — the writer never once mentions how wonderful I am, which I find distressing — but, okay, I can live with that, so here you go.

File this under: “Why I Love the Internet.”

Mr. Preller, I am the one who created the Katrina Video that you posted on your blog site, thanks for the kind words. Mary’s a great artist and the first time I heard that song it just screamed to me to do that video as a tribute to the folks who went thru the Katrina catastrophe.

Thanks for posting it!


Isn’t that cool? These little connections that we make, that come to us from such unexpected sources. Steve and I exchanged a couple of emails and likely that’s the last of it. But it was real, it was good, and I’m glad for it. I’ve watched Steve’s video about five times over the past year and always find it evocative and powerful. The images, the sound, the words. By the way, Mary Gauthier has an incredible life story; for the briefest of accounts, you know where to click.