“I’ll tell you how fiction works, but first let me tell you how I found it out.”

Cathleen got a library card, and I got one, too, this so we can each besmirch our own reputations.

To celebrate my first library card in years, I checked out a book called “How Fiction Works” by James Wood.

Accordingly, I now know how fiction works:

Fiction works by befuddling literary critics.

Given the progress of progressive education through the bowels of our culture, fiction promises to work ever-better every day.

You think I’m joking, but I’m not. In epiphany #98, on page 181, the poet Philip Larkin uses an adverb so vague and so clumsy – and so obviously false to purported fact – that not a single writing student can guess it. If that ain’t a muse-ridden mystery, nothing is.

Wood is the kind of booky gnome who thinks fiction works because booky gnomes are afraid of reality, and so, convince themselves that it’s much more important to waste vast tracts of time gravely studying stupidly verbosely unreadably ‘fictionalized’ regurgitations of the unseemly habits of the ‘author’ and his ‘friends.’ The stylized diaries of the mentally ill get the highest praise of all.

I’d go on, but why? I’ve thought forever that libraries are just the branch offices of the publishing industry’s rent-seeking sinecures, and “How Fiction Works” argues that James Wood could probably do better at almost any other job, were Big Mother’s magic teats to dry up. It’s a fun read, despite everything. It’s a shame the man has nothing to write about.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Peoria, Arizona, a taxpayer is going hungry so James Wood can usurp his wages, devouring the physical wealth that he might rededicate himself to destroying the West’s intellectual capital.

Here’s good news, though: “How Fiction Works” can be tough-sledding, and it assumes a deep knowledge of Western lit going back to the Greeks, so relatively few people now alive can read it to any profit. Of those few, fewer still actually will read it – even if they purchase it. And of the few who do, certainly all of them will be like me: Wise to James Wood and his ilk. So as harmful as this book could be, it (more…)

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All I want for my birthday is undying impact. Will you get it for me, please?

Give the Gift of Willie: For less than a buck, you can give someone you love a glimpse of a better way to dance.

I have so much to talk about, and no one at all to talk to. I wear poor Cathleen out with words, so many are there, so playfully are they misdirected. But she is lucky enough to be able to bear up to me. Too much of what I want to talk about no one but she will endure. This is what comes of trafficking in secret torments.

Funny to me, regardless: A favorite gag of my writing life is the idea of humor-for-one – jokes I hide in prose that only I can get. The prose works for everyone, but the joke is there only for me. I do this for Cathleen, too, write jokes that only she and I can get. I’ll do it with other people, too, from time to time; sometimes they get it, sometimes not. But what’s funniest about humor-for-one is that I mostly write for my own ears alone, anyway. It’s all humor-for-one.

You might think I hate that, but I don’t. What I would hate would be to write something that is enthralling to anyone – or to everyone – but me. It’s plausible to me that this is why I hate almost everything I (start to (try to)) read: Because the author hates it, too, already, long before I got around to hating it.

Whatever. Each man to his own saints, but me, certainly, to mine. I’m rebuilding everything from the inside out, and that’s what I’m doing with fiction, too. I’m at war with narrative art as it’s been done since Cervantes, and with the drama since Aeschylus and before. That might as well be humor-for-one, too, as much as anyone else knows or cares.

Oh, well. My goal is not fame or fortune, but change. And the changes I’m setting in motion now, few and frail, won’t bear their fullest fruit for twenty more years. And the impact of my writing, if any, won’t start to show up (more…)

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Which first lady would you trust to drive a tent stake into Vladimir Putin’s skull?

Of all the first ladies of my lifetime, I like Melania Trump best – elegant dignified silence.

And of all of the women in public life right now, she’s the one who seems most to embody Yael, too, the wife of all wives.

She’s Trump’s best recommendation.

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Fresh Willie: Bedtime stories for your inner child from The Mall of Misfit Families.

Hope is family. Family is hope.That’s why trains go in circles.

Brother Willie has been writing choo-choo train stories for two years now. The first collection of them publishes today. It’s called “Traindancing: Bedtime stories for your inner child from The Mall of Misfit Families.” You can buy it right now – or give it as a gift – at Amazon.com.

Here’s my elevator pitch for the book:

Hope is family. If you’re looking for a conservative art, figure out first what it is you want to conserve. “Traindancing” is my answer. For a buck, you can learn or share some important news: Family is hope.

If you’ve followed my maundering on art over the past four years, this book is a trail-marker on my journey:

I am building #MyKindOfBenedy stories, of course, but I’m also deploying the Willie story as a battering ram on settled forms of narrative art.

Translation: I’m making war on the novel, both for its time-wasting verbosity and for its veiled pornography. The stories I want to write should give you a ninety-minute film’s worth or an eight-hour novel’s worth of redemption in one to ten thousand words – six to sixty minutes to read.

The important word in that paragraph is redemption, but we’ll come back to that another day.

For now, savor the wonder that is the mind of Loco Willie:

Everything I’m seeing is making me, more and more, into a loco engineer – a guy just crazy enough to think he can change things. I started out just smiling and waving. But smiling and waving at everyone won me small friendships with the Regulars – with the mall-walkers and the Blue Bellies and the Yellow Jackets. In time I wore down most of the Grotesques – simply by refusing to see them as being grotesque. The Specials are all mine because almost nobody else wants them, and to the unwitting children I am The Pied Piper of Arrowhead – the second time for keeps.

I see the normal in the Grotesques and the grotesque in the Normals – I see it all, over and over again. I see (more…)

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#ThriversEd: Because anyone can be a Dutch Uncle, people are kids, too.

I’m with the Jesuits: There is no answer better than another question, and children never tire of well-aimed inquiries.Photo by: Bev Sykes

The world we live in is not just underfathered – it’s underchildered, too.

Much of what I have to say about children is obvious to anyone who is or has been a parent or to any sibling. But only-kids have no siblings, and childless only-kids may have gotten to really know as few as zero other kids in their lives.

By now, kids are so far from being common in our lives that even people who have led well-childered lives can see other people’s kids as aliens – either as an indulged species of vermin or as look-but-don’t-touch museum exhibits.

Here’s a clue, known to every child but seemingly to few adults: Kids are people. Not people, too – just people. An all-the-way-self-aware child is no less human than you, just less-experienced. The way to approach him is the way you would approach any stranger, as an unopened book with a unique perspective – someone to be engaged with and enjoyed, not dominated or palliated or indulged or neglected.

I have a friend who is about to embark on a ThriversEd adventure, and this is the threshold of all of ThriversEd: Authority, little may there be, is consensual. ThriversEd games are led by a Dutch Uncle, a temporary volunteer anointed by mutual assent, and, in theory, only the grown-up knows that he is the emergency fall-back Cincinnatus of Dutch Uncles – the de facto authority.

So, obviously, you are not yielding your adulthood, you are simply setting aside the manifestations of grownupness that distance you from children. Want a quick attitude adjustment? Shuck your shoes and sit cross-legged on the floor. In two seconds flat, you look a whole lot more like a kid to kids.

If I were advising you on how to play with your dog, all of this would be obvious: You have zero “adult” expectations of your dog, so you are sane enough to play with him his way, not yours. The objective of education is to lead (more…)

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Deconstructing Madelyn Nguyen: The art we need is the art of of redemption.

The art we need is not violence disguised as valor, not vengeance masked as purity. The art we need is the art of goodness, the art of redemption. Poetry is leadership, but it ought to be leading you someplace you truly should go, don’t you think?

I ran across that image yesterday on Twitter and objected to it immediately:

Strife doubled is halved? Violence, retribution, vengeance, comeuppance – those are the values evil prizes. The art of goodness is goodness.

Twitter is an airline carry-on bag of text, but that serves to focus the mind. That is the argument I’ve been making about art for more than four years now:

The art of redemption makes people better – and its contraries make them worse.

If the goal of art is to make people better, we’re making the wrong art.

The art-making business is going down in flames right now, so maybe some fire-sale buyers would like to learn how to do something different. I have lots of ideas.

Meanwhile, I promised Cathleen that I would document my abstract goals in writing “Why Madelyn Nguyen’s always gonna win.” Typically, this is English class stuff, and there it’s usually conjectural. This is straight from the horse’s mouth.

Doing this is contrary to my interests, so you know. The only way to last as a writer is to get “petrified poindexters” to conjecture about your work, and the only way to make that happen is to be as opaque and mysterious as possible. (E.g., Zimmerman, Robert.)

I don’t know if other people actually even have abstract goals in their writing. It could be they’re just writing about people they dream up – or simply ‘fictionalizing’ real people – and the academics are quibbling over abstract intentions that were never there at all. But I definitely have work I intend to do, when I sit down to work.

Willie stories are fables, and the Traindancing world is a fabulous fablegrounds: Willie can be involved in anything that can happen at the mall, and he can show you just as much of it as he wants you to see.

This story is an extended metaphor (more…)

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You’re like who? Who’s like you? Who in the world actually agrees with you?

My friend James Pruitt fingered this news photo, source unknown to me, and this is my subsequent crop of the image – cropping to the action that matters to me.

You see the Rockwell right away, of course, and the genius of Rockwell was that he was able to capture this instant in oils, not instantaneous picture-perfect pixels.

But what matters to me is the undeniable verisimilitude of photography: Nothing but the framing and the instant of exposure was selected by the artist (with me peeing on the tree with my crop). The rest is pure humanity captured in a slice of time.

This is the literal moment of truth – the instant when everyone is so passionately involved in what is happening right now that no one can contrive to lie. Just that much is worthy of study: This is what people look like when they are not hiding.

But there are three-dozen or so identifiable souls in that photo – all but two, colorably, men – and each one of those individuals is… an individual.

Each person’s location with respect to the ball is different, so their reactions are necessarily different. But each person’s place in the orbit of life is different, too, as is each one’s evaluation of risks and rewards in that moment. Each one of these folks was and will be having a different day, week, year, life from all the others – as witnessed by the teen boy straight up from the middle who cannot punish his (absent?) father enough.

Here’s a Netflix challenge: Each one of those people leaves the ballpark after that one second of shared communion. What happens next? If there are three-dozen people there are thirty-six stories, and each one is different from all the others.

Each one of those people is unique and separate and, in every way that matters, nothing like any of the others. Not even the fathers and sons – not even the ones who still like each other.

To the extent that they share common expectations, they can share common spaces and get along with each other – as here. The more rigid the (more…)

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