Tag Archives: Ken Kesey

A new challenge

The year is 1/12 over, and so far, I’ve kept my challenge of blogging something…anything…every day. 31 days, 31 blog posts. For the blog posts, the focus has been on quantity, not necessarily quality. As with any workout regimen, the first challenge is just doing it, so the blogging challenge is all about re-creating the discipline of creating, of making things every day.

Now that I’ve gotten that habit established, it’s time to think about quality.

The blogging will continue for at least the next 11 months, but I want to add another wrinkle to this challenge. To set the stage, I need to digress.

Larry Brown is one of my favorite writers. Back when he died in 2004 at the agonizingly young age of 53, I was getting up at 5:00 on workday mornings to go to Heine Brothers Coffee to write for 60-90 minutes before going to work. I’d even sneak off to write on weekends and holidays when my family would allow it.

On November 26 of that year, I rode over to Heine Brothers and got a coffee and the Arts section of The New York Times like I did each morning to shake out the cobwebs of the night’s sleep. When I sat down and opened the Arts section, what greeted me was the news of Brown’s death. When one of your heroes dies, it’s a tough blow to absorb.

I tell that story because it meant that the bucket of interviews, written and/or videotaped, would never increase. What was was all there ever would be. As the years have gone by, I’ve periodically searched YouTube to see if any new Larry Brown footage has surfaced, but each time I look, I find the same videos.

Larry Brown has been on my mind for a few days, and today I did that YouTube search and watched a few of those treasured videos and listened to Brown’s wisdom on persevering in the face of reason and adversity. It helps.

In a nutshell, his story goes something like this:

Larry Brown was born on July 9, 1951, in Oxford, Mississippi, about as famous a writer’s town as any in the country. But he wasn’t born into a literary family. Rather, Brown’s family seems like a bunch conjured up in a Faulkner novel. His father was a hard-drinking sharecropper. His mother was a shopkeeper and postmaster.

Brown managed to graduate high school in 1969 and serve a hitch in the Marines before coming home to a string of dead-end jobs. In the early ‘70’s, Brown joined the Oxford Fire Department, where he worked for 16 years.

When he turned 30, Brown decided to teach himself how to write. He was an avid reader, but when he made that fateful choice, his tastes ran to Stephen King and trashy page-turners. He carved out a quiet place in his house, and between there and his off hours at the fire house, Larry Brown taught himself to write by trial and error.

In one of those YouTube videos, Brown says that to have read a story from those first few years, one would have no choice but to come to the conclusion that there was no talent there. He admits, without a hint of irony or a self-deprecating wink, that the stories were awful. But he also says that something deep inside him knew that if he had the guts to put in the time and face the pain of repeated refection and failure, eventually it would all click and he’d understand how to write good stories.

And so it was that 8 years after embarking on a journey to become a writer that Larry Brown was “discovered” by Algonquin Books. Even so, he didn’t trust the success and didn’t quit his fireman’s gig until he had a few books under his belt.

Larry Brown is my patron saint of writing. Cormac McCarthy my write prettier sentences, and Ken Kesey may have had more soul, but Brown speaks to the scared little boy, the underdog from PRP and the under-practiced amateur in me. Brown presents himself as the encouraging big brother – “Hey, if I can do it, so can you, man. You just have to put in the hours and bleed.” That guy. My guy.

And so it is that I come back to Larry Brown once again to find encouragement after having stepped away from the pain a spell. This time, I want to stay for good, so I’m setting goals and shooting my mouth off about it, an old motivational trick I’ve always used to paint myself into a corner that requires action or embarrassment for having not followed through on my boast.

Today is February 1, a nice round number, and my goal is to write at least one short story each month for the remainder of the year. I don’t know if I’ll post them. We’ll see about that. If any are good enough, I’ll submit them around and write about what happens with that process. If any of them suck, I’ll just bury them in a folder on my MacBook and be satisfied with having hit my number for that month.

Wish me luck.

New books are like locomotives

A week or so ago, a friend turned me onto a podcast that I’d never heard of. On Being is an exploration of the Big Questions of life, where Krista Tippett, the host, interviews folks from varied backgrounds and uses their experiences and perspectives to explore what it means to be human.

The first episode I listened to was an interview with Martin Sheen, an actor I’ve followed my whole life who may be better known these days as the father of Charlie Sheen.

I knew that Sheen is a devout Catholic and activist, but knew little more about it than that and a movie he co-produced with another son, Emilio Estevez, called The Way, which is very good.

The conversation was an engaging and seemingly open exploration of Sheen’s pivot back into the Catholicism he grew up with, which came during an emotional, physical and spiritual crisis that famously came to a head during the filming of Apocalypse Now.

Around that time, he re-connected with Terrence Malick, the director who gave Sheen his first big break in the movie Badlands, with Sissy Spacek. Malick became a sort of spiritual guide for Sheen as he found his way back to faith in God. It was during this time, as the two were living in Paris, that Malick gave Sheen a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s doorstopper of a masterpiece, which Sheen says transformed his life.

The Brothers Karamazov
My copy of “The Brothers Karamazov”

Hearing Sheen’s passion for the book, as well as Tippett’s own perspectives on it, piqued my curiosity. For days, the book floated in and out of my mind until I finally decided that I had to read it. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten lazy in my reading habits; enough so that I made a resolution to be more intentional about reading books in 2016.

New books, especially “important” ones, are intimidating things to begin. At least for me. I’m a completest, and once I set out on the course of a book, I hate to give up on it. I’ve never read any of the Russian novels, and approached this one like one might approach a great physical undertaking, like hiking the Appalachian Trail. I knew there would be easy stretches and hard stretches; moments of elation and moments of wanting to give up and go back to social media. But I also knew that if I stuck it out, eventually I’d come out the other side, just as hikers eventually emerge from the 100 Mile Wilderness and approach Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

I also knew that, just as hikers experience a kind of depression over the final miles of the AT, knowing that the experience will soon be relegated to mere memory, I’d probably grow to love this book and experience the same reluctance to closing it for the final time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today, I’m on page 4, struggling to find my rhythm. I started the book two nights ago, very late, and stopped reading on page 4 when I got too sleepy to go on. The next night, I picked up where I’d left off, but had no recollection of this Fyodor Pavlovitch and why the narrator despised him. So, I went back and started over and got back to nearly the same stopping point as before. Today, while having lunch at my desk at work, I picked up the novel again and remembered how I’d gotten there.

That was comforting.

To me, getting a new book started is like getting a locomotive up to speed. Rarely does it happen quickly. Entering a new book is entering a new and alien landscape, which takes a while to get my bearings. One of my favorite novels is Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, which I first read when I was in college. I recently re-read the book, and because of it’s familiarity, I fell into it as easy as one might slip on a favorite old sweater or an old pair of running shoes.

But the first time I read Kesey’s book, I couldn’t get past those first pages that set the table to save my life. I couldn’t get his rhythm. I didn’t understand why or how he was building this world and why the Wakonda Auga River was so important to describe in the way he described it.

So, I started it, then stopped, then started again and stopped again. This went on a few times until I finally made up my mind that I wasn’t going to abandon the book and pushed through those early pages, those first few miles of trail, until my rhythm and Kesey’s fell into lockstep. It was a magical experience, that first time through that book, and I remember being so proud of myself for having pushed through an uncomfortable and clumsy beginning to discover a jewel of a novel that no one else seemed to know anything about. I felt like Columbus discovering The New World.

In a few hours, I’ll climb the stairs and crawl into bed with this big, green book and pick up the thread and journey a few more miles into this strange terrain, looking for guideposts, marking my way and learning the lay of the land, confident that one night soon, I’ll know my way around and then the miles will start to fly by and I’ll experience the bliss of getting lost in a great book.