Monday, April 16, 2018

Cyberflanerie: El Paso's Secret Tunnels, Gondek's Biography Podcast, Patricia Dubrava on Ursula Le Guin, Susan Coll's Trailer & etc.

El Paso's Secret Tunnels:

Chris Gondek's excellent Biography Podcast is now available on YouTube:

A most extraordinary trailer, for Susan Coll's comic novel The Stager:

Alright then! For Politico, Nicolas Carr explains Twitter

From one of my favorite blogs: Pat Dubrava celebrates Ursula Le Guin

Trailer for T.R. Hummer's After the Afterlife (Nietzsche will be mentioned.)

For my fellow Mexican history nerds: Maximilian's Memoirs (link goes to a post on my Second Empire / French Intervention blog)

Reb Livingston reads "That's Not Butter" (Reb! I miss your blog "Homeschooled by Crackling Jackal.")

Barbara Allen Hosts Palo Alto's First Poetry Post

Click here, then scroll waaaaaaaaaaaaaay down, for the talk on "Robinson and Una Jeffers: A Life in Letters"

Ye oldie but yumsie by Dmitry Orlov, The Despotism of the Image


> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Grokking Plot: The Elegant Example of BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES

Get this book from
The Seminary Coop Bookstore
...or your usual go-to online purveyor
As of this year, my posts for the second Monday of the month are dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.


As those of you who follow this blog well know, I am work on a book of creative nonfiction about Far West Texas, a subject distant indeed from children's literature. But Russell Hoban's 1964 classic, Bread and Jam for Frances, is bright in my mind because in the recent days of my mother's final illness, I read it to her several times.

Bread and Jam for Frances was a great favorite of ours, a book my mother read to me when I was learning to read in the early 1960s. She always appreciated children's books, and often gave copies of her favorites as gifts. Other favorites of hers included DuBose Heyward's The Country Bunny and the Little Golden Shoes; Margaret Wise's The Little Fur Family; anything and everything by Beatrix Potter; and many other titles about in Hoban's series about Frances the badger and her little sister Gloria.

From 1939... still selling faster
than little bunnies can hop
In her last days my mother was unable to do more than listen to TV news-- and it pained me to sit in that room awash with reports of shootings, bombings, crashes, the latest tweets from POTUS, commercials for drugs and those breathlessly chirpy recitations of ghastly side effects, and even such absurd "news" stories as-- this one still makes me chuckle-- "Robotic Dinosaur on Fire!"* So I asked my mom if, instead, I could read to her from some of her favorite children's books and she said, delightedly, yes.

*(Robotic Dinosaur on Fire!-- That's the title of my next book of poetry.)

What brings me to mention Bread and Jam for Frances here is that, as I appreciated for the first time, the plot is at once simple and unusually elegant.


No matter whether one is writing an adult thriller, a romance novel, or a literary tour-de-force of an historical epic, plot is something a writer needs to grok, before writing, during drafting, and in the editing process. Where to go, what to cut? For many writers, particularly those working on a first novel, plot can seem more difficult to wrestle down than a wigged-out octupus.

The best and most complete craftmans' treatment of plot that I have found to date is in Robert McKee's Story, a book aimed at screenwriters, but almost every one of his yummy nuggets applies to novels as well. That said, it's a big, fat, doorstopper of a crunchily crunchwich-with-garlic- sweetpotatoes-on-the-side kind of book, not the most appropriate for a one day workshop, as I prefer to teach them.

In my workshops, for a necessarily brief introduction to plot, I prefer to start with the chapter in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, which introduces the Fichtean curve, and then move on to Syd Field's Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, which introduces the three-act paradigm (which also applies to fiction).

Find these three and more recommended books on craft here.

Gardner's On the Art of Fiction is the best introductory book on craft I know-- over the past 30-odd years I have read it and reread it more times than I can count (and bought new copies when the old ones fell to pieces). However, on many an occasion, before I learned to first give 'em ye olde cold fish of a caveat, the more sensitive among my students would complain bitterly about Gardner's arrogant tone. And to those of you not in my workshop but who who have read and loathed Gardner, I say unto you: Buck up, kiddos, or consider that Gardner did you a favor so you can quit now because the literary world, like the whole big wide rest of it, makes snowflakes sweat blood! Then flash-fries 'em to a crisp! Anyway, Gardner died in a motorcycle accident years ago so you're unlikely to ruffle his feathers with your cranky review on Goodreads-- which only makes you sound like a flaming snowflake. SSSSsssss.

Seriously, have a laugh, shake off Gardner's tone like the peacocking silliness that it is; if you want to understand the art of fiction, I urge you to read what he has to say. (Also, by the way, you can ignore the subtitle, Notes on Craft for Young Writers. It's for anyone writing fiction, at any age.)

Of course, in a workshop it is necessary to talk about plot in reference to one or more specific novels. But one of the gnarliest challenges for a workshop is that reading a novel requires many hours-- no time for that in a one day format-- and even the most well-read writers may not have read the same books, nor share the same taste. Perhaps we have all read Edith Wharton, but for you it was Ethan Fromm, for me, The Custom of the Country. Willa Cather? Perhaps you read My Antonia and I read Death Comes for the Archbishop. And, Lord knows, there are perfectly intelligent and talented workshop students who have not heard of either Cather or Wharton. Lord also knows that, much as we may recommend our favorite novels to each other, even we roaringly avid readers may work but a fraction of the way down our towering to-read piles.

Edith Wharton and Willa Cather
Masters of American literature-- and plot
My uberly-uber faves
In an ideal workshop I would dissect the plot in any one or or more of their novels
(I should like to think that these ladies would have been charmed by Bread and Jam.)

What a fine thing then to have found a little book, so short and sweet, with such an expertly wrought plot as Bread and Jam for Frances. 

But I cannot bring myself to do taxidermy, that is to say, a synopsis. For those of you looking to learn about plot (and/or find a worthy children's book as a gift for your favorite young reader), may I suggest that you buy a copy of Bread and Jam for Frances, then read it, which won't take you more than about 10 to fifteen minutes. Then return here, just below the triple hashtags.

# # # 

Bread and Jam through the FICHTEAN CURVE
Think of this as a triangle (curvy if you wish) where your story travels, episode-of-conflict by episode -of-conflict, up the hypotenuse to the big pointy CLIMAX. Then, with your denouement-- pronounced, raising your nose oh so slightly, day-noo-mahn-- slidey-slide down to...The End!

Episode o' conflict: At breakfast Frances does not want an egg; she only wants bread and jam.
E o' c: She admits she traded yesterday's chicken salad sandwich for bread and jam
E o' c: At lunch she offers to trade her bread and jam for a sandwich, is refused
E o' c: At snack time her mother gives her not a special snack but bread and jam
E o' c: For dinner there are veal cutlets but Frances gets... bread and jam

Climax: At the next dinner Frances cries and asks for spaghetti and meatballs!

Denouement: For lunch the next day Frances enjoys a lunch of a lobster salad sandwich and much more. She agrees with her friend Albert that it is good to eat many different things.

Bread and Jam through Syd Field's THREE ACT PARADIGM

Breakfast at home: Frances does not want her egg, only bread and jam. She admits she traded yesterday's lunch of a chicken salad sandwich for bread and jam
Plot point (what takes us to Act II): It's time for Frances to go to school

Lunch with Albert, Albert has a nice lunch while Frances has only bread and jam.
Snack time, it's still bread and jam.
Dinner, still bread and jam.
Dinner again, bread and jam
Plot point (what takes us to Act III): Frances cries and asks for meatballs and spaghetti

Frances enjoys her meatballs and spaghetti
The next day, Frances opens her lunch box to find a very nice lunch with a lobster salad sandwich and, with her friend Albert, discusses how nice it is to eat many things


Perchance this sounds silly. Am I saying that we can compare the simple little plot in Bread and Jam for Frances with that of such literary heavyweights as say, The Custom of the Country? Death Comes for the Archbishop? Or, for that matter, The Great Gatsby? Yes, dear writerly readers, that is what I am saying-- and moreover, that because the plot of Bread and James for Frances is so compact and simple, it is easier to see. And having seen it so clearly, you should then be better able to see plot in your own work.

What does your plot look like through the paradigm of the Fichtean curve? And of the three-acts?

Now your wigged-out octupus just might shed a few limbs, or at least, braid them together and sit up nicely and accept a cup of tea-- and in between sips, calmly inform you, in his bubbly French accent, what's to happen next. (Never a dull moment writing fiction.)

There are other ways of looking at plot, by the way, and one I cover in my workshops is the "Hero's Journey," a paradigm first eludicated by Joseph Campbell. The book I recommend on this subject is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.


P.S. Check out "'Giant Golden Buddha' & 364 More Free Five Minute Writing Exercises." Today's five minute exercise:

"What's in the Kitchen Drawer?"This is a vocabulary expanding exercise not about using new words, but rather words you already know but seldom use. List the objects in your kitchen drawer(s) from the spatula to the grapefruit knife to the soup ladle. 

> All second Monday posts

> Oodles more resources for writers at my Writing Workshop Page

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell writes:
"Love those books, and your essay! Hoban was featured in a display at Beinecke at Yale. I often think of Frances's difficult experience with Thelma, the bad friend, who trades for her tea set."

Monday, April 02, 2018

MARFA FOR THE PERPLEXED by Lonn Taylor, illustrated by Avram Dumitrescu

Get your copy from
The Marfa Book Company
If you have any interest in Marfa, grab this book, and if you have never heard of Marfa, grab this book and you will be fascinated! I have yet to grab it myself, for it is hot off the presses from the Marfa Book Company, but I have already read most of it, as I have been an avid and long-time reader of historian Lonn Taylor's "Rambling Boy" columns, many about Marfa and its denizens, for the Big Bend Sentinel.

> Taylor also reads his columns for NPR here.

Taylor is a deeply knowledgable historian-- he made a distinguished career at the Smithsonian Institution before retiring to Far West Texas-- and a most elegant writer, ever curious and clear-eyed, and one--how rare this is!-- with a gentlemanly heart bigger than the world.

As for artist Avram Dumitrescu, two of his wild-eyed chicken paintings, red-white-and-blue like the Lone Star State's flag, are hanging on the wall in my Texas Bibliothek, exuding their magic "dino energy"! Viva!

From the catalog copy:

Marfa for the Perplexed, by Lonn Taylor, is a collection of 60 essays about people and places in and around Marfa, Texas. Due to the work there of the minimalist artist Donald Judd between 1972 and his death in 1994, Marfa (population 2,000), located 200 miles from the nearest commercial airport in Texas’s isolated Big Bend region, has become an international art center and, more recently, a hip tourist destination. Marfa for the Perplexed reveals that Marfa and the surrounding country has always been a place of refuge for eccentrics and individualists, many of whom you will meet in the book’s pages. It exposes the rich mix of cultures that underlies the current Marfa art scene - the real Marfa beyond the buzz.
Marfa for the Perplexed is illustrated by Alpine, Texas artist Avram Dumitrescu. The foreword is by Marfa’s Sterry Butcher, a frequent contributor to Texas Monthly and other publications. 

I am proud to say that Taylor and Dumitrescu both granted me interviews (Taylor here, in 2015, and Dumitrescu here in 2012) for my Marfa Mondays Podcasting Project, which is apropos of my book in-progress-- despite the title of the podcast series, my book covers not only Marfa but the wider Big Bend / Trans-Pecos region, that is to say, Far West Texas.

> Lonn Taylor and Avram Dumitrescu talk about their book for Marfa Public Radio

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Q & A with Nancy Peacock, Author of THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PERSIMMON WILSON, On Writing in the Whirl of the Digital Revolution

Get this book from theSeminary Coop Bookstore
(and other online booksellers)

I happened upon the website of novelist Nancy Peacock in, of all places, the comments section of computer science professor Cal Newport's blog. Newport is the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldNovelist Nancy Peacock's comments there echoed my own on the topic of social media; moreover, as I am writing about the Seminole Scouts and the Indian Wars in Far West Texas, an undeservedly obscure subject, I was intrigued to learn about her latest novel, The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson. 

From the catalog copy:

"For fans of Cold Mountain and The Invention of Wings comes a tour de force of historical fiction (Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain) that follows the epic journey of a slave-turned-Comanche warrior who travels from the brutality of a New Orleans sugar cane plantation to the indomitable frontier of an untamed Texas, searching not only for the woman he loves but so too for his own identity. 
I have been to hangings before, but never my own. 
Sitting in a jail cell on the eve of his hanging, April 1, 1875, freedman Persimmon Persy Wilson wants nothing more than to leave some record of the truth his truth. He may be guilty, but not of what he stands accused: the kidnapping and rape of his former master's wife. 
In 1860, Persy had been sold to Sweetmore, a Louisiana sugar plantation, alongside a striking, light-skinned house slave named Chloe. Their deep and instant connection fueled a love affair and inspired plans to escape their owner, Master Wilson, who claimed Chloe as his concubine. But on the eve of the Union Army s attack on New Orleans, Wilson shot Persy, leaving him for dead, and fled with Chloe and his other slaves to Texas. So began Persy's journey across the frontier, determined to reunite with his lost love. Along the way, he would be captured by the Comanche, his only chance of survival to prove himself fierce and unbreakable enough to become a warrior. His odyssey of warfare, heartbreak, unlikely friendships, and newfound family would change the very core of his identity and teach him the meaning and the price of freedom. 
From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Life Without WaterThe Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson is a sweeping love story that is as deeply moving and exciting an American saga as has ever been penned (Lee Smith, author of Dimestore)."

Check out Nancy Peacock's work on her website,, and read more about her novel here.

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive literary writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Facebook, Twitter, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share? 

NANCY PEACOCK:  My biggest experience with the digital revolution has been with Facebook. After much cajoling from an agent and the culture, I finally opened a Facebook account. That's what we're supposed to do, as writers, right? We're supposed to promote our work every possible way. I was surprised to find things that mattered to me on Facebook, and then, as those things dwindled, I became addicted to searching for them. In the end, my mind became fractured, and I was unable to focus on what I needed to focus on: the writing. I deleted my FB account. I did not disable it. I deleted it, and I feel my mind healing. It was like coming off a drug.

 I'm a very private person, and my writing grows from that. I need spaciousness to pull it all together, and spaciousness is coming to be seen a bit like the horse and buggy. Quaint and picturesque, but impractical. But I needed it. Not having it is a deal breaker to me.

I also spend a lot of time on research. Writing any novel requires keeping a lot of plates in the air. Writing a historical novel requires keeping those plates from colliding and breaking against facts and dates. It takes focus. I couldn't focus because social media had splintered my ability to do so.

I think writers, and publishers (maybe especially publishers) need to start taking a bigger picture of what literature means, and what it has to offer that other forms of storytelling, namely movies and television, do not. Writing and reading are ways to slow down. I wish the industry would embrace that, and stop whipping the more, more, more horse.

 For me it really came down to either being a writer or presenting as a writer. I chose the former.

C.M. MAYO: Are you in a writing group? If so, can you talk about the members, the process, and the value for you? 

NANCY PEACOCK: I am in a writer's group. The group grew from a women's writers group which I led for years, and for income. Over time the members became very solid with each other, and I kept looking in from the position of leader thinking I want to join. I thought that for years. Finally I asked if they would accept me as a member, and they said yes. So I lost some income because I no longer lead the group, but I gained an incredible group. These women are sharp, funny, great listeners and exceptional responders to the written word. We have three novelists (one needs to finish her novel - she knows who she is!), a poet, and an essayist, short story writer, and poet combined into one amazing person, who also bakes great cakes! We've seen each other through life events, sickness, raising children, publication, struggling with the work (although it is mostly me who struggles and crashes with the work) and much more.

 I think the format of a writing group is very important, and that not enough people pay attention to that. I don't think just any comment goes. You need an agreement among the members on how to respond. For instance, I once brought in a piece to a different writing group. The piece mentioned being in therapy, and one of the members response was to say she was glad I was still in therapy. She said it again and again, and it was personal, a judgement on my sanity, and had nothing to do with the writing or the story I was telling. This was not OK at all and I tried to discuss it with them and got shot down for it. One of the reasons my current group works so well and has lasted so long is because we follow guidelines that were established at the very beginning.

C.M. MAYO: Did you experience any blocks while writing this novel, and if so, how did you break through them? 

NANCY PEACOCK:  The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson was the least blocked novel I have ever written. The opening line, "I have been to hangings before, but never my own," arrived to me on a walk I took one morning to watch the sunrise. It literally was suddenly in my head. Out of nowhere. I went home and wrote it down, even though at the time I was very discouraged about writing and publishing and was thinking I might never write again. That evening I watched the documentary about The West by Ken Burns, and I idly wondered if there were any black Indians. I knew there were white Indians from having read The Captured by Scott Zesch years earlier. From these two things, the line in my head and the idea of a black Indian, the first chapter poured out of me.

With some books you labor hard to get to know the characters, and to gain their trust. With others you are possessed. This was a possession. I had to do a lot of research and shape the narrative around historical events, but Persy (Persimmon Wilson) was very willing to talk to me. I had a sense of urgency from him, just as if he was about to hang in a few days time, which at the opening of the novel, he is.

C.M. MAYO: Back to a digital question. At what point, if any, were you working on paper for this novel? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic? 

NANCY PEACOCK: I mostly compose on the computer. I don't have trouble with it. I trained myself to do it with my first book. When it comes to anything but writing, I don't like being on the screen. It's the interaction between story and me that makes composing on the computer different from all other screen activity. If I get stuck on something, if a scene is not working, I turn to writing by hand. That usually makes something break through that wouldn't come before. I also teach two prompt writing classes each week, during which I write with the students, and I sometimes use that time to work on a novel. I remember vividly writing the scene in which Persy is captured by the Comanche in my class, and reading it to them. It went almost verbatim into the book.

C.M. MAYO: Do you keep in active touch with your readers? If so, do you prefer hearing from them by email, sending a newsletter, a conversation via social media, some combination, or snail mail?

NANCY PEACOCK: I am in active touch with a large group of local writers and readers because I've built a community around a free class that I teach once a month I've been doing this for fifteen years now, and hundreds of people have come through my workshop. Because of this community building, I've built a local fan base. National has proven more difficult, and I don't really think social media helps. I think it's spitting in the wind.

I have a website and occasionally hear from someone via the contact form. I always love hearing from anyone who's read my book. I've found that if someone takes the time to contact me, it's because they liked something in the book, so it's (mostly) been a positive experience.

 I'd like to encourage readers to contact writers whose work has impressed them. There's so much competition to the printed page these days. I don't even think publishing houses understand the unique value of the novel.

Another community building activity I hope to organize is a regular letter writing campaign to favorite authors. Real letters. Not email. Real letters (or postcards!) with stamps and handwritten words on them. I am extremely touched when I receive one of these, and I'd like to make a space for readers to reach out to writers. I'd like this to be a regular part of the reading experience. Another nod to the slowing down reading gives you. Nothing says love like snail mail!

# # #

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, March 19, 2018


There are some books, masterpieces as they may be, that one simply is not ready to read. For me, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby comes to mind. Trudging through it as assigned reading for my highschool English class, I could not fathom why anyone would celebrate this blather about the antics of a bunch of silly people! Zoom ahead a decade and a half, and then rereading it, however, I was in awe-- at once, continually, and sledding into that elegy of a last line-- of its majesty, its poetry, its utterly American genius (although indeed, it is about a bunch of silly people). I say the same about Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.

Are you ready to read Four Arguments? Or have you already? It's an old book, originally published in the late 1970s. For me to read Mander's masterpiece in this Age of the Smombies has been one of the most astonishing reads in my life. Yet I do not believe that I could have read it any earlier. Or, perhaps, I should say: would that I had read it earlier.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Nancy Peacock comments:

"I read this book many, many years ago, first as a series of excerpts published in the Mother Earth News, and later, I purchased it and read it again. It is profound. I have told so many people about this book, and yet my recommendation always falls on deaf ears. The fact that is was published in the '70s does not make it any less profound today. In fact in my opinion, given the technologies its author likely did not imagine and how they have taken over so many lives, it is even more profound. Thank you for posting this." Nancy Peacock

Sunday, March 11, 2018

For the Writing Workshop: John Oliver Simon and Nicanor Parra; Margaret Dulaney's "The Child Door"; Latest Stance on Twitter; Ten Hands

This year I continue to post on Mondays, the second Monday of the month being dedicated to a post for my writing workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing. 

# # #


John Oliver Simon has passed away, a great loss to the translation and poetry community in California and abroad, especially Mexico. Read his obituary here.

Back in 2008, for Tameme, I published John Oliver Simon's translation of a chapbook by Mexican poet Jorge Fernández Granados, Los fantasmas del Palacio de los Azulejos / Ghosts of the Palace of the Blue Tiles. Read an interview with him about that here.

And over at her blog, Holding the Light, poet and translator Patricia Dubrava remembers Chilean poet Nicanor Parra.

# # #

Some questions for you, dear creative writer:
How would you want your obituary to read?
What creative works would you be most proud of, and why?
Which ones would you not want to leave unfinished, no matter what?

# # #


Playwright, essayist and mystic Margaret Dulaney's monthly podcast, Listen Well, offers her beautifully written and beautifully read personal essays. (Check out her book, To Hear the Forest Sing: Musings on the Divine.) Dulaney's latest offering, "The Child Door," should be of special interest for anyone who might need a nudge for their creative process.

> Click here to listen to Margaret Dulaney's essay, "The Child Door."

# # #


For those looking to publish, I warmly recommend signing up for Jane Friedman's free and choc-packed-with-valuable information newsletter, Electric Speed.

You can follow her blog, too.

Her new book, The Business of Being a Writer, will be published this month by University of Chicago Press.

# # #


See "Twitter Is" by C.M. Mayo
As I slog through the backlog of email and, concurrently, contemplate the transcendent role of technology in Far West Texas and American and Mexican culture and my life (e.g., last week's post, Notes on Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute), I've been noodling about social media, Twitter in particular.

Back in 2009 when it was sparkly new, I wrote a celebratory essay about Twitter for Literal. I stand by what I said; Twitter has its creative possibilities. But then as now, to quote myself:
Fster than a wlnut cn roll dwn t roof of a hen house, were gng 2 see t nd of cvlizatn
It has become increasingly clear to me that, considering Twitter's attention-fracturing, addictive qualities, and general yuckiness (hashtag mobs, trolls, etc), on balance, it's not for me.

In fact, I sincerely wish that I had never bothered setting up an account with Twitter in the first place.

But I have not deleted my account, cmmayo1, because, after all, I have a goodly number of followers and therefore, when I run a guest blog, book review, or Q & A, I will tweet the URL to that post as a courtesy to the author. And I know that there are still a few thoughtful, readerly and writerly souls out there, checking in on their Twitter feed, now and then, who may see such tweets and find them of interest and value. You know who you are.

P.S. Everything I have to say about Facebook I said here.

P.P. S. Nicholas Carr has two extra-extra-crunchily crunchy pieces on Twitter in Politico, this one in 2015 and this one in January 2018.

# # #


Today's 5 minute writing exercise is "Ten Hands":

Describe five different pairs of hands. (Some things to consider might be color; texture; shape; symmetry; condition; scars; tattoos; jewelry; etc.) For each pair of hands assign a name and a profession.

> Help yourself to 364 more free five minute writing exercises on my workshop page here.

P.S. As ever, you can find many more resources for writers here, and recommended reading on the creative process here.

# # #

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Notes on Stephen L. Talbott's THE FUTURE DOES NOT COMPUTE

Get it in paperback from
The Seminary Co-op
Dense yet elegantly lucid, Stephen L. Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst was published by O'Reilly Associates in 1995, on the eve of the explosion of email, well before that of social media. Astonishingly, it delineates the nature of our now King Kong-sized challenges with technology, when those challenges were, so it now seems, but embryonic. And Talbott writes with unusual authority, grounded in both philosophy and his many years of writing and editing for O'Reilly Media, a prime mover in the economic / cultural juggernaut of a complex, increasingly dispersed from its origin in California's Santa Clara Valley, that has become known as "Silicon Valley."

> Talbott offers the entire text of The Future Does Not Compute for free on his website at this link, along with an annotated table of contents. You can also find a paperback edition from your go-to online bookseller.

From the catalog copy:

"Many pundits tell you that the computer is ushering us toward a new Golden Age of Information. A few tell you that the computer is destroying everything worthwhile in our culture. But almost no one tells you what Stephen L. Talbott shows in this surprising book: the intelligent machine gathers its menacing powers from hidden places within you and me. It does so, that is, as long as we gaze into our screens and tap on our keyboards while less than fully conscious of the subtle influences passing through the interface... 
"The Net is the most powerful invitation to remain asleep we have ever faced. Contrary to the usual view, it dwarfs television in its power to induce passivity, to scatter our minds, to destroy our imaginations, and to make us forget our humanity. And yet -- for these very reasons -- the Net may also be an opportunity to enter into our fullest humanity with a self-awareness never yet achieved. But few even seem aware of the challenge, and without awareness we will certainly fail."

For me Talbott's work was a wondrous but belated find, given my focus on the conundrums of technology in my book-in-progress on Far West Texas (which also, on few occasions, ranges as far west as Silicon Valley, for reasons which will be clear in the book itself).

Tops on my reading pile is Talbott's more recent book (2007), Devices of the Soul: Battling for Ourselves in the Age of Machines.

> Visit Talbott's home page and guide to his writings here.

> See also a 1999 New York Times article on Talbott's work, "Editor Explores Unintended, and Negative Side of Technology."


Owen Barfield
"Our destiny is to
become conscious and free"

In his acknowledgements Talbott writes that he is "indebted above all to a man I have met only though his published writings: Owen Barfield." Barfield (1898-1987) was an English philosopher, author of Worlds Apart and Saving the Appearances, among many other works, and part of the Oxford literary circle that included C.S. Lewis and J.R. R. Tolkein. Writes Talbott:
"The core insights underlying all [Barfield's] work remain among the most original scholarly achievements of this century. So original, in fact, that these insights are impossible to accept-- even impossible to think."

 > See Owen Barfield's official webpage, main quote: "Our destiny is to become conscious and free."
Timeline of Barfield's friendship with C.S. Lewis

Romanticism Comes of Age
by Owen Barfield
> See Worlds Apart by Owen Barfield
> See Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield
> See link to a short documentary, "Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning"
Notes on that: Barfield is mainly about "thinking about thinking." His key work is Saving the Appearances.

> See the authorized biography by fellow Anthroposophist Simon Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Comes of Age: A Biography. 

> See also the collection by Owen Barfield with the same title, Romanticism Comes of Age, essays on Coleridge, Goethe, Steiner and Anthroposophy.


An important influence on Owen Barfield was the work of Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), most notably his book The Philosophy of Freedom. When he found Steiner's works, Barfield had already independently come to many similar conclusions. In the documentary on Barfield cited above, "it was a case of like finding like."

Rudolf Steiner
See the page on Rudolf Steiner here and an archive of his works here.

Caveat: Reading Steiner can get very strange very fast; not everyone has the stomach for reading about angelic channelings, epic battles in the supercelestial realms, etc. Steiner's Anthroposophy is an offshoot of Theosophy, and as such, heavily influenced by many of the ideas of Russian mystic Madame Blavatsky. (Read a brief note about Madame Blavatsky, the monumental figure of modern esotercism, in the excerpt from my book about Francisco I. Madero here.)

But: keep your shoes on your feet and your helmet buckled onto your coconut! Steiner was, among many other things, the founder of the Waldorf Schools. Read about that influence in Silicon Valley here (New York Times) and here (Business Insider). There is also a video posted in 2013 by the Waldorf School of the Peninsula which explains the educational philosophy in some detail.

Of note re: Steiner's broader cultural influence: Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift grapples with Steiner's philosophy, Anthroposophy. For this novel Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976, the same year he also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. See Stephen E. Usher's Conversations with Saul Bellow on Esoteric-Spiritual Matters: A Publisher's Recollections.

(I'm focusing on computers here, so I won't get into Steiner and Biodynamic Agriculture; do Google or Duckduckgo should you feel so moved. P.S. Wikipedia, aka wiki-whenever-whomever-whatever, is likely not your best source of information on this subject.)

The Philosophy of Freedom
By Rudolf Steiner
Also available free online
at the Rudolf Steiner Archive
> See Liz Attwell's brief and concise video review of Steiner's The Philosophy of Freedom. Quotes from Attwell's review:

"[This is] the most radical book that Steiner wrote, it is the foundation of all his thought... I think it is the only book that would have convinced me he had something important... to say... he is removing the blinkers from the Western mindset. He clarifies the act of knowing... he brings it down to the simplest possible elements and he shows you where, in your thinking, it's possible that you might be free. He shows you, there's a self-contained place in your thinking where it's absolutely clear that you could be free.... If you build from that place, you can be sure that what you are thinking and feeling and willing is coming from a place that is not being determined by anybody or anything else... we can begin to know ourselves in the world, and that would be the true basis of freedom."

> See also the video of Christopher Bamford, publisher of Steiner Books USA, discussing Steiner's The Philosophy of Freedom; and for a broader view of Steiner's thought, see "Christopher Bamford Interviewed for 'The Challenge of Rudolf Steiner.'"  And see philosopher Jeremy Naydler, also interviewed for "The Challenge of Rudolph Steiner."


Get it in paperback from
The Seminary Co-op
"During most of [the] seventeen years I was working with computers, and it slowly became clear to me that the central issues bedeviling all of us who try to understand the relation between the human being and the computer are issues upon which Barfield began throwing light some seven decades ago.  The Future Does Not Compute is my attempt to reflect a little of that light toward the reader."

Talbott on awareness of self and awareness of the nature of machines:
"Machines become a threat when they embody our limitations without our being fully aware of those limitations. All reason shouts at us to approach every aspect of the computer with the greatest caution and reserve. But what incebtive has our culture provided for the exercise of such caution and reserve? It's more in our nature to let technology lead where it will, and to celebrate that leading as progress." Ch. 2 "The Machine in the Ghost"
"On the one hand: the machine as an expression of the human being. On the other hand: the machine as an independent force that acts or reacts upon us. Which is it? I am convinced there is no hope for understanding the role of technology in today's world without our first learning to hold both sides of the truth in our minds, flexibly and simultaneously. The relationship between human being and machine has become something like a complex symbiosis." Ch. 2 "The Machine in the Ghost"
"If it is only through self-awareness and inner adjustment that I can restrict the hammer in my hands to its proper role, I must multiply the effort a millionfold when dealing with a vasty more complex technology-- one expressinh in a much more insistent manner its own urgencies." Ch. 2 "The Machine in the Ghost"
"understanding is the basis of freedom." Ch. 2 "The Machine in the Ghost"
"the computer, one might almost say, was invented as an inevitable refinement of the corporation" Ch. 3 "The Future Does Not Compute"
"what we have embodied in technology are our own habits of thought... The need is to raise these habits to full consciousness, and then take responsability for them." Ch. 5 "On Being Responsible for Earth"
"another word for responsability is 'dominion'-- not the dominion of raw power, but of effective wisdom." Ch. 5 "On Being Responsible for Earth"
"We can no longer stop or even redirect the engine of technological change by brute, external force. Such force is the principle of the engine itself, and only strengthens it. We must tame technology by rising above it and reclaiming what it not mechanical in ourselves." Ch. 5 "On Being Responsible for Earth"
[Much of chapter 5 is taken up with a critique of the works of Jerry Mander. See Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations and Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. (For more on television: Marie Winn, The Plug-In Drug: Televisions, Computers, and Family Life).]
"But Mander does neglect one critical fact: what we have embodied in technology are our own habits of thought. Yes, our artifacts gain a life of their own, but it is, in a very real sense, our life. We too easily ignore the ways in which we infuse these artifacts with the finespun web of our own, largely subconscious habits of thought. The need is to raise these habits to full consciousness, and then take responsibility for them.

[Much of chapter 6 includes a scathing attack on George Gilder's ideas.]
"...the more complex and indirect the mechanisms through which human action come into expression, the more you and I must be masters of ourselves." Ch. 6 "Networks and Communities"
" way or another, you are creating your future. Wake up before you find that the devils within you have done the creating." Ch. 6 "Networks and Communities"
"...the view that a technology can be 'democratizing and leveling' testifies to a radical alienation from everything that constitutes both the inner life and culture" Ch. 6 "Networks and Communities"
"...the telephone, automobile, radio, and television have all contributed to social fragmentation, personal isolation, and alienation from both self and other" Ch. 6 "Networks and Communities"
"What hope is there for peace and human rights when I conceive the barriers separating me from my fellows to be mere obstructions on a network technology diagram rather than the powers of darkness shadowing my own heart?" Ch. 6 "Networks and Communities"

On freedom and power:
"The need is to recognize ourselves in our machines, and our machines in ourselves, and begin to raise ourselves above our machines." Ch. 7 "At the Fringe of Freedom"
 "Freedom, you might say, is not a state, but a tension" Ch. 7 "At the Fringe of Freedom"
"The doing required of us is a refusal to continue seeing all problems as the result  of a doing rather than a being, as technical rather than spiritual." Ch. 7 "At the Fringe of Freedom"
"...if we persist in the cultivation of a purely technical stance toward our work and our technology, we will find that, like the corporation, it takes on a life of its own, which is at the same time, our life--but out of control and less than fully conscious... this autonomous life may exercise a totalitarian suppression of the human spirit that will be all the more powerful for its diffuseness and invisibility" Ch. 7 "At the Fringe of Freedom"

On the so-called "global village":
"...could it be that what we so eagerly embrace, unawares, are the powers of dissolution themselves?" Ch. 9 "Do We Really Want a Global Village?"
"...what concerns me is the liklihood of our expressing within a new social and technological landscape the same spiritual vacuity that gave rise to the old tyrannies" Ch. 9 "Do We Really Want a Global Village?"
"The global village is... a technological creation.  Many would-be village architects are inspired by te endless potentials they discern in a satellite dish planted among thatched roof houses. This techno-romantic image calls up visions of information sharing and cooperation, grassroots power, and utopian social change. What it ignores is the monolithic and violently assimilative character of the resulting cultural bridges." Ch. 9 "Do We Really Want a Global Village?"

On awareness and loss:
"The light of mathematics may have descended into our minds from the circling stars, but how many students of mathematics still look to the night sky with wonder?" Ch. 9 "Do We Really Want a Global Village?"

On "helping" developing countries by bringing modern technology:

"the logic and assumptions of our technology can prove bitterly corrosive. Worse, the kind of community from which Western technical systems commonly arise is, for the most art, noncommunity--typified by the purely technical, one-dimenional, commercially motivated, and wholly rationalized environments of corporate research and development organizations."


"...human  life can be sustained only within a sea of meaning, not a network of information" Ch. 9 "Do We Really Want a Global Village?"


"...our rush to wire the world will some day be seen to have spawned a suffering as great as that caused by this century's most ruthless dictators"

On the corporation (corporation as machine):

"Is the corporation a human activity in the service of human needs, or not? It is remarkble how easily and subtly the human-centered view slips from our grasp. Indeed, just so far as the corporation is viewed as an enterprise designed to score a profit, rather than to serve worthwhile ends under the discipline of economic controls, to that extent the entire organization has already been cut loose from its human justification and reduced to something like a computational machine" Ch. 10 "Thoughts on a Group Support System"

Nugget o' wisdom:

"... every problem is a gift... [it] invites the production of new, human "capital.' This is far different from seeing a problem merely as something to be gotten rid of by the most efficient means possible." Ch. 10 "Thoughts on a Group Support System"


"It's not the Net we're talking about here; it's you and me. And surely that's the only place to begin. Neither liberation nor oppression can become living powers in any soil except that of the human heart" Ch 11


"If we experience our machines as increasingly humanlike, then we are experiencing ourselves as increasingly machinelike." Ch 11 
"...we are strongly  tempted to use our freedom in order to deny freedom, pursuing instead the mechanization of life and thought" Ch 11 
"... what is directly at risk now--what the computer asks us to abdicate-- are our independent powers of awareness. Yet these powers are the only means by which we can raise ourselves above the machine" Ch 11 
"What if the human being to whom we so beautifully adapt the computer is the wrong sort of human being? What if our efforts really amount to a more effective adaptation of the human being to the machine, rather than the other way around?" Ch 11 
"...we have learned to regard ourselves as ghosts in the machine... we have more and more become mere ghosts in the machine" Ch 11 

"an electronic New Jerusalem, its streets paved with silicon" Ch. 24 "Electronic Mysticism"

More to ponder:

"ancient man, much more than we, experienced himself rather like an like an embryo within a surrounding, nourishing cosmos... a plenum of wisdom and potency"
"the mythic surround was engaged in weaving the ancient mind, as in a dream"
"From Tolkein's storyteller-- who originates and remains one with his own mind-- they have descended to mechanican tinkerer... just so far as we forget our ancient descent from a cosmos of wisdom above us-- we lose the basis of creative mastery, an offer ourselves to be remade by the mechanisms below us"
"we are pursuing an experiment every bit as momentous as the discivery of mind at the dawning of western civilization-- what manner of god will we be?"

> See also C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Essential quote from Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute:
"...what we have today is in some respects a seriously disabled consciousness, and... our own infatuation with machines is both a symptom of our disability and a further contributor to it." 

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk on the Siren Song of the Online World & on Writing SILVER GIRL

Get this book from:
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Politics & Prose
and just about everywhere else

A bouquet of bienvenidos for new readers of this blog in 2018. And as you long-time readers know, I post here at "Madam Mayo" blog on Mondays. For 2018, Monday is still the magic day, and every fourth Monday of the month will feature either a post on cyberflanerie or a Q & A with another writer, poet, and/or literary translator.

This first Q & A for 2018 is with crackerjack literary novelist, short story writer, and essayist Leslie Pietrzyk who has a new novel out this month, which I cannot wait to read. Silver Girl is the title, and it has already been garnering outstanding reviews, including a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. (For the unititiated, a starred review in Publisher's Weekly is a B-Freaking-D for which, lest you own a wine shop, you do not have enough champagne.)

More fiction by Leslie Pietrzyk:
Pears on a Willow Tree
A Year and a Day

This Angel on My Chest
Pietrzyk is also the author of This Angel on My Chest, winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Short Fiction; and the novels A Year and a Day and Pears on a Willow Tree.

C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive literary writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Facebook, Twitter, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share?

Leslie Pietrzyk,
author of SILVER GIRL
LELSIE PIETRZYK: Oh, yes, yes, yes…I’m a sucker for that siren song of the online world. I’m not sure I’ve come up with the answer for maintaining focus, but sometimes I’ll try setting timers (say, no Facebook until two hours have passed) or working late at night (fewer people online to chat with). I don’t answer email on the weekends.

But what works better for me (unless I’m kidding myself), is that I’ve become more open to working WITH social media and the wide world of Google available while I’m writing. Why knock myself out trying to imagine the color of nail polishes in 1982 when I can simply Google for an answer and see an array before me? Why berate myself for dipping into Facebook for five minutes? Why not just accept that distractions are part of our world now and try to retrain myself to write deeply amidst them?  

CM: Are you in a writing group? If so, can you talk about the members, the process, and the value for you?*
LP: For many years I was in an incredible, high-level writing group of 6 women who shared novels-in-progress…dear Madam Mayo belonged to this group! I think I learned how to write a novel from these monthly meetings.

When the group dissipated after 10 years, I was—honestly—tired of having critical voices in my head. Plus, I was in the beginning phases of putting together a story collection that was linked unconventionally, by incident (in each story, a young husband dies suddenly; the book became This Angel on My Chest). Because what I was doing was so difficult, and because I didn’t know how on earth I was going to make this premise work, and because I didn’t want to hear one word about my flailing, I decided that it was time for a different kind of group.

I started my neighborhood prompt writing group, and we meet once a month and write for 30 minutes to open-ended, one-word prompts. We can read out loud or not, and there are no critiques, only admiration. We’ve been meeting for more than 5 years now, and chunks of Silver Girl emerged from these meetings.

(Here’s an article about how to start your own prompt writing group: )

CM: Did you experience any blocks while writing this novel, and if so, how did you break through them?
LP: My biggest block actually came right at the beginning. I had been writing character sketches and scenes in my prompt group for at least eighteen months before I started the book in earnest, so I had all this material. My two college girl characters were dark and edgy and complicated, and I’d teased out a ton of fascinating history to their relationship. When I finally finished This Angel on My Chest I thought it would be a simple glide right into the new book…but I realized immediately that my complicated, interesting characters had no plot! It was a humbling moment.

I started doing more research into the Tylenol murders in the early 80s (which is the backdrop for the book) and focused on brainstorming potential connections between my girls and that event. I won’t say I ended up with an outline per se, but eventually I found a path for the book’s events. (Nor will I say that anything about writing this book was a “simple glide”!)

CM: Back to a digital question. At what point, if any, were you working on paper for this novel? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic?
LP: I never thought I’d say this, but paper was very important! I’m usually all-computer-all-the-time, but I’ve found that writing to prompts on paper feels freeing and takes my mind to riskier, more interesting places. So I wrote about Jess and the unnamed narrator many, many times across several little notebooks. The problematic parts came in trying to locate scenes I was sure I’d remembered writing, and when I had to type into the computer, a task I despise. Perhaps even more problematic is the constant fear that I’ll lose one of my notebooks to carelessness or fire before I transcribe its contents!

CM: Do you keep in active touch with your readers? If so, do you prefer hearing from them by email, sending a newsletter, a conversation via social media, or some combination?
LP: I’m far too disorganized to send a newsletter. Also, I retain enough Midwestern upbringing to wonder, who wants to hear from me? An email from a reader is always a fun surprise or a tweet…but I’m still loyal to Facebook. I generally post publically so anyone can follow me. I’ve actually come to know many readers and writers through my FB scroll. And for real old-school types, I’ve still got my literary blog!** I used to be very reliable about posting and am erratic now, but I hope the site still retains a scrap of personal flair:

Email access is on my website (along with some of my favorite recipes):

# # # # 

*CM: I too left our writing group, and for similar reasons. (I was about half way into an epic and epically complex historical novel, and after I got rolling with that, receiving critiques from other writers who were, of necessity, reading 30 pages out of context, was turning into more trouble than it was worth to me-- and, to further complicate matters, I was transitioning to living in Mexico City again.) Nontheless I remain immensely grateful for members' critiques of the beginning drafts of this novel, as well as of several other short stories and literary essays. And I miss the comraderie of those meetings with such excellent friends and esteemed colleagues. Those years for me personally, and for my writing, were a rare blessing.
**CM: For anyone interested in writing and publishing literary fiction, Leslie Pietrzyk's Work-in-Progress blog is a read well worth your while.

> Your comments are ever and always welcome. Write to me here.

Blast from 2008!