Saturday, November 24, 2007

J'ai renvoyé à nouveau

I spent the holiday alone. But before my readers begin to pity me, I should say that this was planned as my daughters will both be in Chicago next weekend when we are to have a grand feast. We hope to outdo our meal of two years prior, a surprise visit that I wrote about at length. Ella has finished culinary school and has opened a restaurant in New Orleans, intent on being part of the redevelopment of one of the more neglected (and dangerous) areas of that city. We still have lengthy conversations about food as the soul of culture, but in truth she is now the master and I am the student. I visited her bistro over the summer and she served me a simple jambalaya and fresh corn bread that was so perfect that I wept for twenty minutes upon cleaning my bowl. When I recovered I ordered a second helping. Billie, my other daughter, is interviewing for a job in Chicago with a nonprofit. It's her backup plan depending on how she fares on the Foreign Service Exam, which she is taking for the third time. It's bad karma to controvert her dreams, but I still hope she winds up in Chicago so that we can be close. It terrifies me to think of her serving in Baghdad in the center of the mess created by Our Leader and the nincompoopery who support (and continue to apologize) for his criminal and incompetent leadership. Not that Billie wouldn't do much to make the best of a horrid situation, but I'm a grumpy old man who needs his daughter close and out of harm's way.

I should make some mention of where I've been for the past year or more. Devoted readers will recall my series of relationships with my students and ex-wives, and it all, I'm afraid, turned out badly. I had some issues, my garden variety depression spiraling temporarily out of control, heightened by my heart surgery and subsequent battery of medications. I'm in therapy now, and though I lost my job in the MFA program of a uninspiring yet pretentious middlewestern institution of higher learning, I'm on the rebound with a good job teaching at a Chicago area community college, which a former student secured for me upon hearing of my predicament.

Things are going well, and while New York exhibits indifference to my new novels and memoir despite my triumphs of old, LA has taken interest in my facility with screenwriting. At the behest of a friend I wrote a spec script while hospitalized after a storytelling drought of more than a year. Her logic was that I should begin working in a new format and she was dead on. I discovered I have latent ability in screenwriting. Several producer friends reviewed the script, immediately spying brilliance. The fact that I am honoring the strike is perhaps the only reason it is not currently in development at a major studio. I'm now working on a script about my life that is sure to have independent filmmakers queuing up once I finish, so I devoted my solo Thanksgiving time to fleshing out another pair of scenes.

Oh, I did eat well. I had some good crab and shrimp left in the freezer from a past Cajun orgy and some old baguettes that had hardened so I made a bayou stuffing and filled mixed red and green peppers for holiday flare. I made fresh hush puppies and some Cuban beans and rice. A crisp Pinot Blanc from Alpine Italy harmonized with the meal. Seafood on Thanksgiving helped me not to dwell on the fact of my solitude.

In any event, I've returned yet again. I hope to return to these online memoirs in earnest, adding my occasional recipes and advice for aspiring writerlings. I'll also add some tips on screenwriting as I'm now beginning to master that craft as well. I feel good. I get the sense that there are good things in store for the Brown Trout. Welcome back readers. J'ai renvoyé à nouveau.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

On strike

In solidarity, brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Writerly advice

I've decided to add a collection of my aphorisms delivered to MFA students on my latest speaking tour. These are insightful responses to sound questions, so please take them all to heart:

"A writer should write from the guts. That's why I never write in the morning until after a good bowel movement. Only after a serious shit can you write things that are true."

"If the words aren't coming right is when I chew on bulbs of raw garlic. If that doesn't work, try venison, cooked bloody and eaten under a full moon at midnight. Otherwise, you're probably just destined for failure."

"True writers never doubt themselves. Period."

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Tolerance for Genius: An open letter from the Brown Trout to the fine students at FSU on methods of coping in the shadow of Literary Greatness

Dearest students:

Put your coffee down.

My fine writerlings, genius is messy. Brilliance can burn you if you stand too close. When the shit hits the literary fan, I know it can sometimes cause disillusionment. When one of us devolves to the Neolithic, it is no less disturbing for being so expected.

But I urge you, given recent events, not to lose faith in our noble pursuit or it’s fine practitioners. We Literary Lions are all in truth little boys trembling in the night. We are children lost in the woods. Despite our laurels, our involved and intricate narratives, our sparkling and unassailable prose, we are all flawed and broken creatures. I’ve failed thrice at marriage, and each time it was my own (damn) fault, though it took years for me to admit that to the world or even myself. You all know the Buffett song. What's more, I have a faulty ticker, an underzealous metabolism, an empty savings account, troubles with the sauce and a strong lecherous streak yet none of this has led me to prudence or the tempering of my appetites. I haven’t published a brilliant novel since the mid-seventies. My memoirs were recently rejected by several major houses despite its excellence, and I know this is largely due to my personality issues, though I am truly gregarious and likable in person. Still, I am a selfish man and a mediocre teacher sucking on the teat of academia, resting on the laurels of novels long since forgotten. Thank God for the MFA! Unlike my dear friend Bob, I never took the Big Prize. I've failed to remain a productive writer. I would never put myself in his league. I’ve been crushed by critics. I’ve pissed off agents, offended editors, destroyed friendships and quashed budding literary careers. Most of this has been accidental. At heart I am a good person. An old-fashioned liberal Democrat who loves and admires his students (some more than others) and who truly cares about our nation, its people and its letters. But enough about me. On behalf of my good friend Bob, I ask not for your understanding, your compassion or your sympathy in his recent meltdown. I ask only for your tolerance.

To that effect, let me offer some advice for those standing in the shadow of literary greatness. I've often considered adding these points to every syllabus at the beginning of the semester, but then perhaps that would ruin some of the fun for my eager young proteges.

Recommendation the First: Read your Master's work. All of it, even the dreck. You need not charge into his office breathlessly citing passages, though there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But it's best to simply drop hints in conversation over lunch or dinner: "Oh, I see what you're mean to draw characters sharply and succinctly as you did in the second chapter of The Wind in the Petunias..."

Recommendation the First Part 1.b: There is no reason for you not to pick up the tab for above mentioned lunch or dinner. Your master is likely a struggling artist, and unlike you he has no access to low interest loans. He will not find it offensive in the least.

Recommendation the Second: Always return the Master's books. When he loans you an edition from his own shelf, keep it for a short time and then promptly return it. There is no reason for you to actually read it, though it wouldn't hurt. He mainly enjoys the process of loaning the book and also telling you a brief anecdote about his relationship with its author. As it is typically an autographed first edition, and because it is probably an out-of-print volume written by an obscure writer you've never heard of but who is now teaching at another MFA program, it is imperative to keep it in excellent condition.

Recommendation the Third: Return your Master's affections. If he were to make advances on you after the latest department wine and cheese mixer, it is usually a clumsy expression of his respect for your abilities as a writer. It may seem that the more provocatively you dress, the greater his admiration, but that is merely coincidental. I have found, anecdotally, that women in their mid to late twenties experience a burst of inspired creativity. It may be biological, I'm not sure, but if it seems that attention is directed from the Master in this direction this may be a partial cause.

Recommendation the Fourth: Ignore the Master's contradictions. A great writer is not so much an individual but a process. His thought and keen insight are constantly evolving as our world changes. If he should proclaim one day that New York is a (shallow) cess pool that has produced nothing but hackneyed upper-middle-class suburban parlor drama but then praises ____________ the following class, please do not point this out. New novels are being published every day, and perhaps he had just subconsciously absorbed more information requiring an addendum to his initial comment. A Master is anyway granted license in making sweeping statements. Many of these are true, such as, "There have never been any decent Republican writers." But others are subject to changing circumstance and the Great Mind's evolution.

Recommendation the Fifth: If the Master dismisses a writer of whom you are particularly fond. For example, if he says, "Jonathan Franzen is a clever but cynical turd writing fake prose who won't survive his own generation and may well drop from the radar faster than David Foster Wallace," don't take it to heart if you admire these particular writers. It's probably just that your literary sensibilities aren't sufficiently developed for you to read their work the way that he does.

Recommendation the Sixth: If your Master asks you to drive him to the airport, or if he asks you to help him pick up fifteen bags of humus and haul them around back to his herb garden, do not think that he is using his elevated stature to secure free labor. He is probably just seeking an excuse to be near your budding talent.

Recommendation the Seventh: Any passages appearing in his published work that seem strikingly familiar to an assignment you turned in last semester should be considered an homage, not plagiarism. This may be as close as you ever fact, consider it the same as being published yourself, though tell no one. It will be your very own lifelong secret.

Recommendation the Eighth: Be gentle to your dear Master. His is a heavy burden and he needs your support. So is ever genius.

I could, of course, continue, but I have set aside the balance of this evening for Writing and will be hard at work on a new novel for which there is much expectation among the literary establishment despite my reputation as a former literary bad boy. As ever, I wish you writerlings well. All of you have a home in my heart, and your respect and admiration are ever appreciated.



Monday, February 19, 2007

Dog balls not suitable for children

While it's hard to improve upon the low-key skewering of American conservative priggishness apparent in this Independent article, I'll have to also throw in my own two cents. It seems that this year's Newberry Prize-winning novel for kids(The Higher Power of Lucky) has stirred the community of conservative librarians and teachers (most certainly only a handful of loudmouths) because of the inclusion of the word "scrotum" on its front page.

The controversial genitalia belong to a dog, and said dog has been bitten there by a rattlesnake. Sounds like comedy to you and me, but to the conservative guardians of our children it is no laughing matter. Everyone knows that such graphic language can send an impressionable young mind on a rocketsled to bestiality.

Mention of dog balls may be coarse, lewd and even inappropriate for most dinner conversation, but they still can be pretty funny. Children have an eye-level view of these anatomical features, and I remember my nephew giggling and pointing at a particularly pronounced pair of offending objects on a Labrador retriever not so long ago. I also once talked my sister, by phone, through the removal of a tick from the corresponding region of that same nephew. We will all laugh about that someday as well.

I suggest that conservatives hold a contest to search for a more appropriate term and then present that word to the publisher. "Goobers" might be one option.

Friday, January 26, 2007

BTFW for real

Jim Harrison showed up in the NY Times yesterday. Of special interest, his recipe for mesquite roasted doves. He notes that it's important not to overcook or they'll turn out like "bowling balls."

Friday, December 15, 2006


This is the only useful book on writing that I've ever encountered. Finally, a fiction "how-to" guide that doesn't flog the usual inane questions: when's the best time of day to write; do you use an outline; who's your greatest influence; when did you first know you wanted to be a writer; &c, &c. I'm frankly tired of hearing that Nabokov composed his novels on notecards or that Hemingway stood at his typewriter. This book cuts to what's most important in literature: the authors' favorite cocktails.

I hope Hemingway and Bailey collaborate again in the near future. Winter's approaching, rendering me an indoor creature for much of the bad weather, and that's when I do most of my cooking. I'd cherish a collection of recipes. My dear friend Jim Harrison could fill an entire chapter. I'm getting hungry already, hankering for Joel Rubichon's glorious, hearty Burgundian sauce that he slathers over everything from eggs to fish when the weather begins to bite. Add to that some shaved gruyere and a delicate Mersault and I'd be well stocked for a night at the Remington Rand.