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Excerpt from Bruce Craven’s “Sweet Ride,” published by Codhill Press

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Writing on August 12, 2021 at 12:16 pm
Bruce Craven

Bruce Craven teaches a popular MBA/EMBA elective, Leadership Through Fiction, at Columbia Business School. He has also been a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty for 30 years where he teaches workshops in resilience, flexible thinking and emotional intelligence.    He also co-runs Craven Leadership LLC with his wife and business partner, Sherelle Craven. He published the novel, Fast Sofa, in 1993 and co-wrote the script for the film adaptation in 2001. His leadership book, Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, in March 2019. He also published a collection of poetry, Buene Suerte in Red Glitter in 2019 with Red Dirt Press. He studied politics and literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and received his MFA in Writing from Columbia School of the Arts. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.
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This book is available for purchase at this link.

Part One: Dirty Martini, Excerpt from Chapter 7: Wild Child

Context: struggling screenwriter, George Nichols, with the help of his financially successful fiancée, a Hollywood film-industry manager, Nicolette Amberson, has flown to New York City in the late Nineties to pursue a screenwriting project about surfing, a sport George finds terrifying.

George arrived in New York on the red-eye, and exhausted, met Australian fashion photographer Mick Tanner, and a woman living downstairs in George’s building: Lilly Lejeune. Late that same night of his first day in town, George has arrived at a nightclub at Lilly’s invitation, with the plan of having drinks and talking more with Mick. 

Two muscle men in purple stretch-knit shirts and black dusters flip through clipboards and survey the people. At dramatic moments, the muscled guards remove the braided robe, unclasp the brass hook and allow the significant or the long-suffering to enter the nightclub. The security have ear-pieces and mumble into microphones. Black velvet curtains block the front of the club. A sign in blacklight reads “Haute Densite.” George joins the crowd, checking his wristwatch as if he’s in a hurry and people are waiting for him, both true.

  One hour later, George stands by himself. George is alone, except for the bouncers in black and purple. George’s bourbon high has dimmed to a grinding ache in the front of his skull. George wonders what solution could leverage him into being inside the nightclub instead of here outside on the street. The nightclub doors open and George gets a blast of the shattered rhythm of the inside: voices and laughter spilling out with music. George continues to stand near the two muscle men who think about Creatine, whey and egg whites, and dream of their next tuna wrap, packet of almonds, and pump session, maxing out in front of the mirrors, flooding their muscles with high reps at low weight.

   George nods at one of the doormen. Pick me…

   A sharp whistle snaps George to attention. It’s Mick on the other side of the braided rope. “What are you doing out here, mate?” The two bouncers look at Mick and look at George as if he just appeared from a cloud of smoke. They unhook the braided cord’s brass-plated hook from the stand and motion for George to step forward. “C’mon,” Mick slaps George on the back. “I’ve got this pretty waitress Eve waiting. She might join our venture, handle some of the office production. You been writing?”

   “Yeah,” George lies. His head hurts. This day has not ended for two days. He follows Mick down the hall, entering the crowded lounge area where there are purple banquettes, a long mirror behind the bar and a floor-to-ceiling painting of a Maasai warrior, gripping a spear. The carpet is blood red. An opaque partition of beveled glass reminds George of the glittering martini glasses stacked on Lilly’s bookshelf.

   A glass of fire passes in front of George in the hands of a man wearing a suit made out of shimmering white material. The man hands the red glass to a girl George has seen on a magazine cover.

   Mick introduces George to Eve, who sits on a circular lounge pod upholstered in wine-colored leather. Her purple dress is crushed velvet and her hair is tossed around her shoulders. Mick looks at George, “This Eve is something. She might be the gem in the crown. She said she’s on board with TNP.” Eve’s legs are crossed. She watches the room with amused calm. Eve’s cigarette hovers above a blue ashtray on an ebony table that has legs that are carved like hooves. Mick takes one of Eve’s cigarettes. “I told you about George…he just flew in today.”

   “Oh, sure,” says Eve, “The surf writer.”

   Mick heads to the bar to buy a round of drinks.

   George watches Eve smile at Mick as he turns and slides into the crowd. “Long day?” she asks George, still watching Mick.

   “I don’t have to say anything intelligent, do I?”

   “I doubt it,” Eve looks around the club. “Just arrived?”

   “This morning…but it feels like this morning was two weeks ago.”

   Mick sets the cocktails on the ebony table, “Eve has experience in…is it theater production? In Montana?”

   “Missouri,” says Eve. “I majored in theater.”

   Mick leans back, sips his pint of beer. “Then it’s settled. Hey! There’s Lilly.”

   George tries to turn casually, but his bourbon splashes on his wrist. He raises the glass and takes a strong sip of cold liquor. Lilly shines in a white cocktail dress rippling with sequins. She points a black cigarette holder at the faces of the men that surround her and pencils them in. Her eyelashes are heavy with mascara and her eyelids are lined with rhinestones. A man offers Lilly a cigarette. George remembers the photo of Audrey Hepburn in a black cocktail dress, the photo taped onto Lilly’s bureau. Lilly is a reflection in white, with a sequined clutch that has a silver clasp tucked under her arm. Mick and George watch her place the white cigarette in the long black stem and smile as the man lights her cigarette. The silver locket on Lilly’s neck, her shoulders sculpted, her white dress clinging. Lilly reminds George of a shimmering goddess. Lilly touches one of the men. He leans close to her. She turns to Mick, holds her hand up in a half-wave. “Be there in one minute,” she says across the noise and people before leaning back to address the circle of men.

   “Do you know her?” George asks Mick.

   “Know her? You could say that. I’m the lucky man that discovered her down South in Alabama. Lilly was a wild child. Still is.”

   “Discovered her?”

   “I was clipping away on editorial work, top-end material, on location in what the locals call the ‘Redneck Riviera.’ It was couture gear, all willowy crap no one could wear in the heat without sweating through it like tissue. My assistant was winding film when made a sound in his throat.” Mick laughs, “I thought he’d lost control of his bladder or was choking on a lozenge, but it was just Lilly he saw walking down the beach. He said, ‘There’s a lovely one.’ I thought I better have a look, professional responsibility and all. Lilly was on the sand, walking toward us. I was working with the Pentax 6X7, instead of the Hasselblad 120. My assistant was loading the second camera. He was in a foul mood since we had the scrim on the sand and couldn’t roll it. Two of his tall boys were trying to hold this 20×20-foot backdrop. I switched lenses and looked out near the water and focused on this young woman, late teens, in a bandanna top and cut-off jeans. Lilly was licking an ice-cream cone, one of those ice creams with the swirly vanilla inside the hard chocolate. The ice cream dripped on her wrist as she walked and I snapped a few shots out of curiosity. Lilly licked the ice cream. I got the snaps. The air was thick that day, high humidity. Our models were losing their patience and here walks this girl who just shimmered, licking the ice cream off her wrist, with a bandanna tied across her breasts and her sandals in one hand.” Mick stops. “She was breathtaking.”

   Eve crushes her cigarette, “How Beverly Hillbillies.”

   “I actually was convinced she was with one of the agencies. I knew right away I wanted to shoot her. My assistant walked over to introduce himself. You never know when a skinny local girl might break in big.”

   Lilly makes her way through the crowd.

   “She’s only skinny in the right places,” Eve says. “It’s not fair.”

   Mick says, “She’s got nothing on you, Eve.”

   Eve blushes. “My dad back in Kansas City would call her a ‘looker.’”

   “Us Aussies are vulnerable to beach girls.”
   “Men are just vulnerable,” says Eve.

   “Touche’,” says Mick. “My assistant brought Lilly over that day and she sat in the shade and watched us finish the shoot. I developed the shots back in New York and could tell she had something, but for all I knew, the girl was living in a trailer park in Baton Rouge or Memphis. I didn’t know my assistant had slipped her a card. Six months later Lilly drops by my loft on a go-see.”

   Lilly continues to sidle toward them through the crowded nightclub. She pauses under the grip of a man. Her eyes flash down to his hand on her shoulder. She smiles politely and wiggles free, poking her burning cigarette in the long holder toward the man’s hand in a mock threat, smiling. Mick says, “I set her up with some contacts. Worked to get her going in the business, but Lilly didn’t last. Hit a few road blocks…and created a few.”

   “Like what?” asks George, watching Lilly slide between two women, who hold black purses on gold chains, in black pants and white blouses. The women with flipped U’s of over-bleached hair and red mouths sip from matching glasses of chartreuse. One of the women, the shorter one, tugs at the blouse of the taller woman. Lilly’s eyes register a tall handsome man, with a narrow waist and a wide chest under his white open-collar shirt. He leans and kisses Lilly on each cheek. The taller of the two women grabs the handsome man, but his eyes are on Lilly. The man watches Lilly as he escorts the two women with dead hair and green cocktails to meet someone. Their gestures emphasize that they must meet now. Lilly watches the handsome man follow the two women into the crowd. The handsome man smiles at her and shrugs.

   “Her hands didn’t help,” says Mick.

   George’s eyes go right to Lilly’s mitts, manicured and clutching her sequined clutch with the silver clasp. Not freakish, but thick—her one visible imperfection.

   Eve says, “She is quite beautiful, but I see what you mean.”

   “Fashion isn’t the most-forgiving business,” goes Mick. “Still, Lilly could have worked more. She has the personality, but Lilly doesn’t have the discipline of the best girls. When she first walked into my loft, I felt here was a girl that would do what it took to make it, but I was wrong. What is it you Americans say? You can bring a horse somewhere?”

   “To water,” says Eve. “You can bring a horse to water…”

   “But you can’t make her drink,” says Lilly, running a finger across Mick’s neck. “Hey, Mickey…” Lilly skooches her sheathed butt onto George’s purple leather lounge pod, scrunching him to the edge of the fat crouton. George has to keep his shoes anchored to the floor to keep from sliding off the leather lounge pod and falling on the floor. George balances against Lilly who tosses everyone a big smile. “What’s up with the horses? You been hitting the OTB again, Mr. Tanner?”

   Mick and George look at Lilly.

   “Off Track Betting,” Eve says. “The lady would like to know if you’re playing the ponies, Mickey?”

   Mick smiles, “Hello, Lilly, it’s great to see you.” George’s jet lag gone, he sips his icy glass of bourbon. Lilly’s sheathed white dress presses against his arm, and George smells a fragrance he remembers from a long time ago.

   Lilly holds her hand out to Eve, “Lilly Lejeune, pleased to meet you.” The women shake hands. “You must be a friend of Mick’s?”

   “Yes,” says Eve. “I guess I must me.”
   “I know Mick’s type,” Lilly says.

   Eve waits for Lilly to continue. “All I mean,” Lilly explains, “is that Mick has exceptional taste. I hope I didn’t over reach…you know, speak out of line?”

   “Put your foot in your mouth?” asks Eve.

   “Right,” says Lilly and smiles. “Exactly.”

   “No problem,” says Eve. “Compliment accepted.”

   “Eve and I are just getting acquainted,” Mick says. “I invited her to join my company. We’re going to pull together a feature film, and I want someone to manage the office…George here is writing the script.”

   “A surf story,” George adds. “That was the meeting I was rushing off to this morning.”

   “A surf story?” says Lilly, without missing a beat. “All I know is that it better have teeny-boppers and hot-rods!”

   Mick looks at George, “Teeny boppers and hot-rods? What do you say, George?”

   “Why not…,” says George. “Vroom, vroom!” He raises his glass. “It’s really…” George has no idea what to add.

   Mick clinks his glass against George’s glass. “I can’t wait to read it, George.”

   “George looks so handsome when he’s writing,” Lilly touches George on the arm, “Doesn’t he, Eve?”

   “Yes,” Eve says, “If tonight is any indication…he must look very handsome.”

   Lilly pecks George’s cheek with a kiss. “My upstairs writer…”

   Mick looks at George. George shrugs at Mick. “I guess I’m the writer that lives upstairs…”

   The handsome man walks up to the four of them. He places his hand on Lilly’s bare shoulder. “Excuse me,” he says. Lilly’s hand touches his, their fingers fold together.

   The man disengages and nods to a man in traditional Saudi white robes and the red and white shemagh headwear. The man walks over to the Saudi with the same hand extended in greeting.

   George watches the handsome man. George doesn’t enjoy envy, but envy enjoys George. Envy finds George in coffee shops, behind the wheel at stoplights or even here in a nightclub in Manhattan. Envy holds up the mirror, and George tries not to look at himself.

   “Who needs a drink?” George asks, “This round’s on me.”

Three (More) Poems by Bruce Craven

In America, Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on April 29, 2021 at 10:09 am

Bruce Craven is a member of the Columbia Business School Executive Education faculty in New York City. In addition to directing and teaching in a variety of executive programs, he teaches graduate business students his popular elective Leadership Through Fiction.  His book Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones, was published in March 2019 by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.  The book is currently being translated into Russian and Turkish. He wrote the novel Fast Sofa (1993) which was published in Japanese and German. He also co-wrote the script for the film adaptation, starring Jennifer Tilly, Jake Busey and Crispin Glover. His collection of poetry, Buena Suerte in Red Glitter was published by Red Dirt Press. He lives with his wife and two sons in the Coachella Valley in California.

Bee Spears Talks Illicit Substances

No snow, no show.Seventies slang, but in ’69, rural

Tennessee was all about speed, weed, booze. “Peyton Place.

that’s what happens with whiskey & amphetamines.” Mural

of venues as the band burned miles. Spears, the bassist,

said the Ridgetop place was “wild as hell.” Mailbox read:

Willie Nelson and Many Others.” It was a commune,

before the honky-tonks heard the term hippy said

about locals. Bee learned to play the tunes

on a steep curve: twenty-eight gigs, twenty-eight nights.

“I snapped real quick that Willie plays bass lines

on his guitar.” Bee backed him low. Lucky Strikes

were still Will’s three-pack habit, and now weed. Nine-

teen, Bee was hired delivering mota to the band.

Then coke hit. Will: “You’re wired, you’re fired.” Shotgun’s drug stand.

Dred Scott

Part One:  SCOTUS & Freedom

Fred Douglass voted for a Republican,

John C. Fremont. His vote supported more

pragmatic views, like free soilism. Veteran

of the battle for freedom, Douglass knew war

might happen, also knew the Radical 

Abolitionist Party’s overly firm stance,

while right, could lose the 1856 Electoral

College struggle. He thought Fremont’s chance

against Buchanan, the Democrat, Slave

Power fan, might prevail. Fremont lost. Hope

cratered when the Supreme Court gave Dred Scott

and all black Americans up. The scope

of Chief Justice Taney’s ruling was clear:

blacks were inferior. Their future? Fear. 

Christian Property

Part Two — The Shape of a Heart

“My poor mother,” Douglass wrote, like many

other slave women: she had children,

but no family. She could be lawfully

sold off or raped, and not live within

a distance to visit or protect,

teach or love the child she created. Legal

sales could steal a husband. Owners select

to beat and abuse her. The child? Her meager

hope might be to walk all night once a year

and surprise her son with a small sweet cake.

Harriet dying at Holm Hill, the sheer

suffering to Fred. No chance to make

his way to visit. “No striking words of

hers treasured up.” He ached for her love.

The News Makes You Dumb

In America, Arts & Letters, Books, Communication, Humanities, Literature, News and Current Events, Writing on August 19, 2020 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here in Public Discourse.

A pernicious notion seems to have settled into the minds of my generation (I’m 37) when we were little boys and girls. It’s now an unquestioned “fact” that “staying informed,” “staying engaged,” and “following the news” are the obligatory duties of sensible, responsible people.

They’re not.

Reading and watching the news isn’t just unhelpful or uninstructive; it inhibits real learning, true education, and the rigorous cultivation of serious intellectual curiosity.

Simply Gathering Information Is Not Educational

When I was a child, my parents, quite rightly, restricted my television viewing. I could not, for instance, watch television after 5:00 p.m. or for more than an hour on weekdays. (Saturday morning cartoons ran for a permissible two hours, before my parents arose from bed.)

The glaring exception to these rules was “the news.” Watching the evening news was for my family a ritual in information gathering, the necessary means of understanding “current events.” Whatever else people said of it, the news was, by all accounts, educational.

Was it, though? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously refused to read newspapers. In The Theory of Education in the United States, Albert Jay Nock bemoaned “the colossal, the unconscionable, volume of garbage annually shot upon the public from the presses of the country, largely in the form of newspapers and periodicals.” His point was that a societal emphasis on literacy was by and large ineffectual if the material that most people read was stupid and unserious. Does one actually learn by reading the cant and carping insolence of the noisy commentariat?

“Surely everything depends on what he reads,” Nock said of the average person, “and upon the purpose that guides him in reading it.” What matters is not that one reads but what and how one reads. “You can read merely to pass the time,” the great Harold Bloom remarked, “or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock.”

The heart beats only so many beats; in one life, a person can read only so much. Why squander away precious minutes reading mediocre scribbling or watching rude, crude talking heads debate transitory political matters of ultimately insignificant import, when instead, in perfect solitude, you could expand your imagination, nurture your judgment and discernment, refine your logic and reasoning, and purge yourself of ignorance, by pursuing wisdom and objective knowledge, through the canon of great literature, with a magnanimous spirit of openness and humility?

Why let obsequious, unlettered journalists on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC shape your conscience, determine your beliefs, or develop your dependency on allegedly expert opinion, as if you were a docile creature lacking the courage to formulate your own ideas, when you could, instead, empower yourself through laborious study, exert your own understanding, and free yourself from the cramped cage of contemporary culture by analyzing past cultures, foreign places, difficult texts, and profound ideas?

The Demise of Journalism

When I was in college, not so long ago, you could still find semicolons in The New York Times. I’m told they surface there every now and then, but journalistic writing, as a whole, across the industry, is not what it once was. I’m being hyperbolic, of course, and am not so pedantic as to link semicolon usage with across-the-board journalistic standards. Besides, the Kurt Vonneguts of the world would have been pleased to be rid of semicolons. All I’m saying is that popular media should be more challenging if it’s to have far-reaching, salubrious effects. Newspaper writing, print or online, seems to have dumbed down to the point of harming rather than helping society writ large, and the opinions aired on television and radio seem to have attached themselves to one political party or another rather than liberating themselves from groupthink and stodgy consensus.

Reading as an activity should lift of us up, not drag us down. It should inspire and require us to improve our cognitive habits and performance. The same goes for listening: how we listen and what we listen to affects our basic competency and awareness.

Not only have the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax displayed in “the news” diminished in sophistication, both in print and on television and radio, but also more generally the principal subject matter has moved from the complex and the challenging to the easy and simplistic. Media coverage focuses predominantly on contemporary partisan politics that occasion minimal cognitive energy.

There’s a reason why so many people pay attention to politics: it just isn’t that difficult to think about or discuss. It doesn’t demand rational labor or arduous engagement. It can be passively absorbed. Ratings of television news would not be so high if its content weren’t so simplistic and easy to process. People watch the news to take a break or relax, or to get a rise out of eye-catching scandals and circumstances. The distinction between journalism and tabloid journalism has blurred beyond recognition. In short, journalism is a dying art.

Dangers of a Digital Age

Smart phones and social media are part of the problem. Every age has anxieties about technology. We shouldn’t blame smart phones and social media for human sins. The discourse, not the medium through which it circulates, ultimately is the problem. Yet it’s a problem that smart phones and social media have enabled in a way that past technologies could not. To air an opinion, anyone anywhere can simply tweet or post on Facebook without channeling the message through editors or other mediators.

Digital and smart devices have accelerated editorial processes. The never-ending race to publish “breaking” news results in slipshod work. Online reporting is full of typos and errors. A few clever reporters employ terms like Orwellian, Kafkaesque, Machiavellian, or Dickensian to give the impression of literacy, but the truly literate aren’t fooled.

Have journalistic practices and standards declined as literacy rates have risen? Does an increase in readership necessitate a reduction in quality? Do editors and publishers compete for the lowest common denominator, forgoing excellence and difficulty in order to achieve broad appeal?

Demanding stories and accounts that enrich reading habits and exercise mental faculties aren’t merely salacious or sensationalized clickbait. So they’re difficult, these days, to find, unless you already know where to look.

In the 1980s, E. D. Hirsch, Jr. could write with confidence that newspapers assumed a common reader, i.e., “a person who knows the things known by other literate persons in the culture.” Neither journalists nor their readers today, however, seem literate in the traditional sense of that term. The culture of literacy—true literacy, again in the traditional sense of that term—has come under attack by the very scholars and professors who should be its eager champions.

Our popular pundits, mostly hired guns, supply unqualified, cookie-cutter answers to often manufactured problems; their job is not to inform but to entertain a daft and credulous public. “The liberally educated person,” by contrast, is, according to Allan Bloom, “one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”

Seek Wisdom and Discernment over Politics and Personal Preference

If we wish to consume the news, we should treat it as junk food. The human body cannot healthily sustain itself on candy bars alone. It requires a balanced diet, nutrition, and exercise. So it is with the mind. Fed only junk, it’s malnourished.

Every now and then we may indulge the vice of chocolate or soda without impairing our overall, long-term health. Likewise we may watch without permanent or severe detriment the screeching cacophonies of semiliterate blatherskites like Sean Hannity, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Wallace, Anderson Cooper, Tucker Carlson, Jake Tapper, or, heaven help us, the worst of the worst, Chris Cuomo.

Just know that during the hour spent watching these prattling performers present tendentious interpretations of fresh facts, militantly employing tedious details to service ideological narratives, you could have read an informative book that placed the applicable subject matter into illuminating historical and philosophical context. The facts may be simple and quick, but interpreting them requires knowledge of the past, including the complexities and contingencies of the relevant religious movements, geographies, anthropologies, governments, literatures, and cultures. Devouring ephemeral media segments and sound bites in rapid succession is not learning. It is gluttonous distraction.

Do not misunderstand me: I do not advocate a Luddite lifestyle or a withdrawal from society and the workaday world. I just mean that too many of us, too much of the time, are enthralled by fleeting media trifles and trivialities, and ensnared in the trap of mindless entertainment disguised as vigorous edification.

Let’s stop telling little children what my generation heard when we were kids. They should stay away from the news lest they fall prey to its mania, foolishness, and stupidity. They should read books—difficult books—and be challenged to improve themselves and refine their techniques. Rather than settling on easy, preferred answers, they should accept tensions and contingencies, suspending judgment until all angles have been pursued and all perspectives have been considered. Let’s teach them to become, not activists or engaged citizens necessarily, but intelligent human beings who love knowledge and learning, and who pursue wisdom and discernment before mundane politics.

“My Parents’ House,” Essay by Ansley Mendenhall

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Essays, Writing on August 21, 2019 at 6:45 am

Ansley Mendenhall Reynolds

Ansley Mendenhall Reynolds is a middle school teacher at a private school in Roswell, Georgia.  

I had not seen these American Girl dolls in quite some time, but here I was gently tucking them into the trunk of my car.  They blended into a sea of nineties childhood toys that I had been saving for my own children to play with one day.  I suppose I inherited this quality from my father—the inability to throw out anything that once mattered to me.  I carefully closed the trunk not wanting to disturb my priceless possessions.

“All set!” I turned and announced to my parents, who had been watching from the front porch.  I could see their eyes welling up with tears, and I knew it would be hard for them to watch me drive away for the last time.  Fearful that the lump that lodged itself in my throat could turn into tears, I hung my head and stared down at the driveway.  The concrete had more cracks in it than I had remembered.

Suddenly I was a four-year-old girl again, standing on the driveway staring at my hot pink bicycle. Metallic streamers dangled from each handle bar.  It was beautiful, but I couldn’t be proud of it because it had two dinky-looking training wheels attached to the back.  To me, those wheels were a sign of weakness.  They were holding me back from experiencing true freedom.

I was only four, but I knew that I would have better success asking the neighbor to remove my training wheels than I would have by asking my own father.  I needed those wheels off, and I needed it now.  I trudged across the grass and knocked on the door.  A balding man in business clothes answered the door.  “Will you take the training wheels off my bike?”  I asked him.

I must have surprised him.  “Suuure,” he answered as if asking a question to himself.   I gave a big gap-toothed grin and, in that moment, something convinced him that he was the man for the job.  “I’ll need to get my tools from the basement, so bring your bike down to the basement door.”

Wide eyed, I watched in wonderment as he carefully removed each part of the training wheel.  I felt like an inmate who had just been released from prison.  Finally I was set free, and I was ready to prove to everyone what I was capable of.

I headed back to my driveway for the inaugural bike ride.  I shouted into the house, “Mom! Dad! Come watch me!”

They chuckled in amusement when they saw the bike.  “Where did your training wheels go, Ansley?” my mom asked.

“The neighbor took them off,” I said.  Then I gripped the handlebars tightly and saddled the bike.  One by one, each foot met its pedal.  I pushed each leg with all my might.  You can do this, I thought to myself.  The next thing I knew, the streamers were shimmering and swaying in the wind as I glided across the fresh, pale concrete.  I felt a rush of freedom.

“Look at our little girl—only four years old and already riding a bike without training wheels,” my mom bragged.

“Way to go, Pumpkin!” dad exclaimed.  Whether he was talking about me riding my bike or about me getting the neighbor to remove the training wheels, I wasn’t sure.  They clapped their hands; their applause echoed in my ear.  I relished in that feeling of praise. My determination had paid off.

I zipped and zoomed around that driveway for twenty-six years; it is no wonder the concrete had so many cracks in it now.

I hopped onto the leather seat of my car and reached my arms up to adjust the rear-view mirror.  I caught a glimpse of the sweetest baby blue eyes—those of my one-year-old son—staring at me from the back seat, where he sat strapped into his car seat. I turned around for a better view.  “Say bye bye to grandma and grandpa’s house,” I instructed this miniature version of myself.

“Bye bye,” he replied.  Hearing those words made my eyes fill with tears.  Be strong, I thought to myself.  It’s not the house that makes the family; it’s the family that makes the house.

I pulled out of the driveway, a 30-year-old woman with American Girl dolls in tow, passing the realtor’s sign stamped “SOLD.”

 

 

 

Three Poems by Carrie Goertz-Flores

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Creativity, Humanities, Poetry, Writing on July 3, 2019 at 6:45 am

Carrie Goertz-Flores has published work in New Plains Review, and has work forthcoming in Red Dirt Forum: A Journal of Contemporary Literature, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a poetry collection, Solanaceae, which seeks to bridge the gap between the botanical world and modern human experience. She lives in rural Oklahoma with her husband and four dogs who serve as dedicated editors and muses for her work. 

 

Shrapnel

Dedicated to my father.

His face was worn with trenches while his gaze was guarded by barbed wire fences,
Yet beyond all those lines lay an abandoned field of friends and rusting wheels,
A battle no longer of bullets but shards so small no one would ever think to notice;
How they stuck then sunk so far into the mind even he had almost forgotten for a time.

Scraping and scrapping pieces of his life along with almost every peace of mind,
They lay like the mines lost long ago in wars no one remembers until they detonate.

For some those metal teeth burrow deeper, shell cased in scars of anger and regret,
The tissue too thick for any surgeon and the surgery worse than the first war crime.
Maybe for the lucky few whose draft number they drew, the pieces begin to surface;
Perhaps they even breach with fallen comrades and the white eyes of their enemies…

But memory is a funny bitch of a thing when carried on a shaft, shell, or bomb;
Shrapnel may burrow or it may breach but nothing can ever make it dissolve.

 

The Suitcase

We heard that jeep limpin’ along, over the hills and somehow still not under one.
A custom clunker with age-enhanced leg room where the floorboards had rusted off,
That black and green ride baptized Camo-Mile, how she hacked on her own exhaust –
Or maybe that was just Aunt Sammy with her Category 5 smoker’s cough.

We watched her climb out then sway and swagger down the rocky drive,
A bloated bag swung in one hand and a square suitcase cradled in the other.
I opened the screen door wide and she handed the paper bag to my mother,
Then bumpin’ past and still hugging that cask, she made the table on a winded sigh.

As Sammy insisted, that suitcase was christened the centerpiece over the honey ham,
Towering like a great white behemoth, sporting a spout for a tail and plastic trunk handle,
While its keeper kept us dazzled with stories of her cats and that long planned trip to France;
She was still talking as we cleared, but helped by finger cleanin’ three plates of pumpkin pie.

That evening all but one gathered in the den to claim their turf and surf the cable channels.
Still I heard it over the rattle of rusty memories and reckless booms of political commentary,
A sudden clink from the kitchen and then a long pour that turned into a longer lonely drawl,
Cup in hand, Aunt Sam sat in time to cackle at the news that Paul was now ready to pass on.

With no on left but me, she finally snored into the dreams that only her suitcase could still bring –
Though she still wore that dreamcatcher charm and the golden cross it had tangled and caught on.
Finally, my dad carried in that Wal-mart bag that still remained packed and crumbled without care:
Panties, pills, and toothpaste pokin’ out, we set it by her fetal form with hopes and continued prayers.

But that suitcase now it hardly sloshed – how she’d solo unpacked that box of Franzia Sauvignon.
Still, Dad and I had our doubts that her latest cardboard carry-on had indeed come from Avignon.

 

 

Leaky Faucet

My mind’s a kitchen faucet
All day filling needy cups
But at night not quite off
Drips are my own dreams
Clinging to the cold sink
I must try to remember…
I must try to save from the daily drain.

Philip Levine and Allen Mendenhall on “Meet the Authors”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 29, 2019 at 6:45 am

Click here to purchase

Suzie Wiley and Allen Mendenhall on “Writers on Writing”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Literature, Writing on May 22, 2019 at 6:45 am

Click here to purchase

Writers on Writing (Red Dirt Press, 2019)

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, liberal arts, Literature, Uncategorized, Writing on January 23, 2019 at 6:45 am

My latest book, Writers on Writing, is available for purchase here at Amazon and here at Red Dirt Press’s website.  From the publisher:

As a lawyer, Allen Mendenhall asks questions. As a writer, he’s interested in the craft. Combine these two and you get this, a collection of writers discussing writing. Writers on Writing: Conversations with Allen Mendenhall is an anthology of penetrating interviews with prominent and diverse authors who discuss arts, literature, books, culture, life, and the writing process with Allen Mendenhall, editor of Southern Literary Review and associate dean at Faulkner University Thomas Goode Jones School of Law. Featuring the telling insights and sage advice of novelists, historians, poets, professors, philosophers, and more, Writers on Writing is not just an informative guide or a useful resource but a fount of inspiration. Readers will find in these pages authentic voices, frank exchanges, and unique perspectives on a wide variety of matters. Aspiring and established writers alike will learn from this book.

Why I Write: Daren Dean

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Humanities, Writing on December 26, 2018 at 6:45 am

Daren Dean

Daren Dean writes in the American South, and is the author of the novel Far Beyond the Pale, which was recently reviewed in The Huffington Post. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, Red Dirt Forum, Cowboy Jamboree, BULL, Midwestern Gothic, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Missouri Life, The Oklahoma ReviewFiction Southeast, storySouth, Crixeo, and elsewhere. He’s been interviewed in or for diverse publications such as Ecotone online, Chattahoochee Review, Image, Ploughshares and Little, Brown and Company. His story “Bring Your Sorrow Over Here” was selected as Runner-up by Judge George Singleton in Yemassee’s William Richey Short Fiction contest. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His favorite unofficial title comes from Robert Olen Butler who wrote, “Dean writes like the laureate of fallen angels.” He teaches creative writing and composition in the English department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

This piece originally appeared here in Fiction Southeast.

“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”—Flannery O’Connor

 

Why do I write? Who can answer this question definitely? No one thing made me want to write. In fact, I think it was an accumulation of experiences from childhood and maybe even lives before I was born. I guess it’s the idea of the transience in life. The way our family moved in and out of each other’s lives and into the lives of other families as well. I never worried about this as a kid, but as an adult looking back I see it as both a blessing and a curse. I was being groomed to be a writer I think and all I can do is point to some of these signposts. Some of my earliest memories are probably what everyone would agree are the those emotional events that your memory holds onto because even as a child you know they hint at something profound though you can’t quite put your finger on it. The mystery surrounding all of us all the time is what drove me to want to write. It’s the mystery that is lived as O’Connor said. Flannery O’Connor said the modern world wants to eliminate mystery, but it is this fundamental mysteriousness inherent in each of our lives that drives me to write.

As a boy, I can remember lying next to my brother Lane on the floor. Lane was older than me by a year. He was born mentally handicapped. He could not communicate. It was never clear to me that he recognized us, my mom and me, for sure. He would sometimes sit in the sunlight with the dustmotes coming in from a window and slap the back of his hand so hard over and over, he would also gnaw on his hand, until there was a callous on it. Well, I would lay there on the floor and stare into his blue blue eyes and try to communicate with him telepathically. I’m not sure  I knew that word then but for some reason I was convinced it might be possible. He would stare back at me very calmly, but as far as I know we never communicated in words but at least I did feel love and an indescribable emotion. This impulse to communicate with another human being, a friend, a mother, a father, a son or daughter, is the heart of what a writer does. Interestingly, when my children were born, this idea of communicating emotion returned to me. The feeling I had when I attempted to communicate with Lane.

I talked quite a bit as a young boy. I see it in my kids now. It’s this fundamental need to know, to share, and to love in that way. There was a time in my adolescence when I almost quit talking to anyone I didn’t know. I think there were reasons for it. We moved so much. I didn’t want to try to make new friends and connections when they were going to come to nothing. Even then I still yearned for understanding. It was a frustrating time as it is for most everyone. However, communicating emotion through stories is T. S. Eliot’s Objective Correlative but it’s a pretty tall order. I feel emotion. You feel emotion. It’s tough to put it into words. I can remember every time we drove over the Missouri River bridge going in and out of Jefferson City, my great Aunt Vivian would point out that my great grandfather was one of the carpenters who worked on the state capitol, which seemed pretty magnificent to me. The giant dome. Over time I began to associate it with my great grandpa. I could remember him vaguely, he had quite a sense of humor, but he died when I was young. In my mind, he built the capitol all by himself. But since we moved around so much, I was not around family much and I felt this void. Who was I? A question that haunted me for a long time. It haunts most of us one way or another I suppose. How did I fit? It was one of the negative things to constantly moving, this alienation. I wanted to make sense of life and know who I was. My parents had divorced when I was so young, I could not remember them ever being together as husband and wife. I saw my father on average about once every two years. He was a handsome stranger, a mystery, I could never unlock. At other times, my mother also mysteriously disappeared and I lived with my great aunt and uncle. They were wonderful for taking me in. I think my mom had us so young she wanted to sow her own wild oats. I couldn’t articulate any of this except that I yearned for her to return.

As I grew older, I was around an independent Christian denomination based on the Holiness movement. It was charismatic. Spirit-filled. My Uncle introduced me to it as a boy. The church was called the Christian Center and later they opened a school called the Christian Center Academy. I went there for a few years in grade school. Again, it was an introduction to the spiritual world and still more mysteries. Could human beings communicate with God? I saw people being prayed for: Miraculous healings; people being slain in the spirit; the faithful speaking in tongues; the beauty of the Psalms. The metaphors in the Book of John are still quite wonderful to me. The Word was God. I remember in one of the upper rooms of the Christian Center (the Church was in an old building on the main drag through town and situated right next to a tavern) there was a big painting of a giant white cross over a fiery abyss and the faithful ran across it. No one needed to explain this. Also, the themes of impending apocalypse, fire, and redemption were real to me in a way that was so literal that if you found yourself alone you might wonder if the Rapture had already taken place. It reminds me that in an interview the Mississippi writer, Larry Brown was asked something like if he’d ever been Born Again. And he said something like, ‘I feel like I’ve been saved many, many times in my life.’ I love that and it resonates with me—and my experience too. I was very passionate about my own spirituality in my twenties. In the Church they talk about the feeling of the Spirit moving in the congregation and that is a very palpable feeling.

As a teenager, I read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and all about the Lost Generation of writers and artists. I loved the Surrealists and wished I could be an artist of some kind but I seemed to have no physical talent for it. So, I remember reading things by and about Andre Breton and even the Dadaists. I thought maybe I could write if I could train myself to think in words instead of images. So I started to try this and some of those early experiments were bizarre to say the least. Most were terrible. But I was reading and dreaming so much then. This is very necessary to the development of any writer. There was a great deal of emotion going into poetry and something like prose back then. I felt like I was tapping into something, but I didn’t know what it was. Now, I know I was tapping into the universe. Around that time I remember coming across an old hardback copy of Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. What a great novel! There was an author photo of the young Capote in a white t-shirt. I was hooked!

In college I read A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor in an English class. I remember thinking, why haven’t I read her before now! Why have they hid this writer from me! I don’t know who hid her per se but I couldn’t believe I’d never even heard anyone talk about her before! My English professor told me about Wise Blood. I read all of O’Connor’s work. It resonated with me because of my religious experiences. Wise Blood was the book that made me want to be a writer again. Several years went by. I really didn’t write that much. I wasn’t that good at it. Writing was, and is, hard work unless you totally immerse yourself in it. Then, it can be sublime.

Several years went by. I discovered the annual New Stories from the South collection. I started to read that collection religiously. I came across Larry Brown’s works because of that series. I think I read Facing the Music first. Then, I found Joe. I sensed that my spiritual experiences along with the kind of rural characters I recognized in Brown’s work was something I could write about as well. Even before Brown, I read a couple of books by Harry Crews. In a Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Crews opens with these startling lines: “My first memory is of a time ten years before I was born, and the memory takes place where I have never been and involves my daddy whom I never knew.” This line really spoke volumes to me as I mentioned earlier that I felt disconnected. Now, I can see that one reason I decided to write was to find these connections and some of them I’ve found in events real and imagined. The historic record and the fictional world of imagination come together in the writer’s mind and form this bridge to emotion, to understanding and connection. Readers read for this connection just as much as writer’s write for it. I recently read this piece in the Oxford American that Barry Hannah wrote. Something he said stuck out to me: “But I believe he (a writer) might also be a sort of narcoleptic who requires constant waking up by his own imaginative work. He is closer to sleep and dream, and his memory is more haunted . . .”

At one time I thought I would find all the answers in a person…and later I thought I might find them in a book…then I thought I might find them within and from my own writing. Now, pushing 50, I find I’m more resigned with being (with process) than thinking I know all the answers. My advice would be don’t be so quick to eliminate all of the mystery. You only get that sense of wonder one time and it cannot be duplicated. This is the mystery I’m talking about.

John William Corrington on the Structure of Gnostic Consciousness

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote the essay “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” around the time he delivered his paper “Gnosticism and Modern Thought: A Way You’ll Never Be” at a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity,” held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” developed out “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a contribution that Corrington prepared for an edition that he and Richard Bishirjian were planning to publish after the Vanderbilt conference. The edition was never published because, according to Bishirjian, some of the contributors did not want to be associated with Mel Bradford, who was contributing a chapter to the book.

Corrington was involved in organizing the 1978 conference with Bishirjian and Eric Voegelin. Bishirjian would later relate that Voegelin considered Corrington’s paper to be the best that weekend. Among those participating in the conference was the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. Ellis Sandoz and Mel Bradford were also in attendance; Bradford delivered a paper and Sandoz moderated a panel.

“The Structure of  Gnostic Consciousness” in some ways summarizes Corrington’s philosophical interpretations of Gnosticism, political order, consciousness, myth, symbolism, the psyche, and knowledge. Corrington criticizes Gnosticism for failing to deal with reality as it is constituted in consciousness. The collapse of the Gnostic understanding of reality leads to disorder and confusion and the embrace of such things as magic that are at odds with a symbolic order emanating from a sound understanding of reality apprehended through consciousness. The Gnostic failure to comprehend reality generates delusional, ahistorical assumptions about the divinity of man and the ability of man to bring about a heaven on earth within history. Marxism is an example of a type of modern thinking that displays Gnostic elements.

The Gnostics felt alienated by and disenchanted with the cosmos as it exists in reality; they hated the real cosmos and remade it in the image of distorted, mythopoetic concepts whose symbology of disorder is mistaken for order. To achieve gnosis, or knowledge, is actually to accept a wrong and archaic mode of mythopoetic thought whereby magic is possible rather than beyond the realm of reality. This form of gnosis is attributable to Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, the Gnostic leader who is recounted briefly in the canonical Book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

Corrington discusses the work of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore, who exposited a millenarian view of history that influenced modern symbolic systems and consciousness which, according to Corrington, represent a divorce from earlier types of mythopoetic thinking. Joachim of Fiore rearticulated a Gnostic vision of earth and the cosmos, projecting eschatological salvation onto the concrete activities in which we are immersed and seeking to realize a heaven on earth within history. His notion of consciousness rendered a conceptual end to history, a fantasy in which the real is lost to a deformed system of symbolism whereby the natural desires of the psyche are satisfied by a false eschatology.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

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