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The Escape

Aftersight

This may sound strange, but when I get stressed out, I read books about the American Civil War: memoirs, journals, biographies, histories. For some reason, combat and camp life are equally interesting; reading about it always makes me feel better.

It’s an escape to some degree, yes, but what it comes down to is this: No matter how stressful or unhappy life can sometimes get, at least I know life is better for me than it was for those soldiers, who faced hardships far worse than I could possibly fathom: bad food, exhausting marches, seemingly endless tedium interrupted by sudden violence, the loss of dear friends with sometimes little or no warning, and the very real chance that a simple cough might turn into an illness from which they might not recover.  By comparison, even at the lowest ebb, my life looks pretty grand.

One of the more stressful times in my life occurred many years ago when my wife and I were searching for a house. At the time, the real estate market in Seattle was hot. Houses in our price range were going fast. That meant you had to be on call if a new house came on the market. Waiting even a day would likely mean it would be snatched up before you had a chance to see it. And if you toured a house you liked, it meant you had to make an offer immediately. There was no night’s sleep to mull over your decision. Frequently, with good houses that needed little or no work, there were multiple offers.

Reading novels kept me sane. I was at the time working my way through what would become my favorite book series of all time: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. Before then, I could never read two books by the same author back to back. Even if I loved one book, I needed a little variety before I moved on to the next one.

Not so with the Aubrey/Maturin series. I remember fondly finishing one book, closing the cover and setting it down, then immediately picking up and starting the next one with scarcely a pause. Luckily for me, there were plenty of books in the series.

After three months and forty-nine house showings, my wife and I purchased a home. By the end I remember being utterly grateful to Mr. O’Brian. He had given me a profound gift, offering me the means not just to escape reality but just enough distraction that life became bearable in a very stressful time.

I remember thinking that this, more than anything else, is what I wanted to do as I writer: to give someone the gift that Mr. O’Brian gave me. A place to go when life wasn’t comfortable. Characters to laugh and cry with, surrogate friends who I loved as if they were the most cherished kindred spirits.

Has a book ever done that for you? Where do you escape? Please let me know in the comments below.

Mastering Astral ProjectionBrian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.

Site: http://www.brianmercerbooks.com/

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Take Three Titles and Call Me in the Morning

Because You Have To           Feeling lost and lonely? Need to laugh? Get hold of some Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, or Dave Barry. (Or Kingsley Amis, whose Lucky Jim surely remains one of the funniest novels  ever written.) Crave soothing? Read some E. B. White, or a book that tracks the painting of a portrait. (Man With a Blue Scarf, Martin Gayford.) Need a bracing draught of coziness-with-pitiless-psychological-acuity? Curl up with a pile of Jane Austen or Henry James—or for literary smack-pow insight, the essays of James Wood. Want the equivalent of a shot of absinthe? Wild Sargasso Sea. Seek American characters who’ll intrigue and compel, yet feel familiar? Grab some Elizabeth Strout, starting with Olive Kitteridge. Jonesing for a candy assortment, where you can skip around and pounce on all the dark truffles? Best American Short Stories. And please don’t forget the immeasurable power of childhood or young adult favorites for any malady— including that of the aimless need to reconnect with life, history, adventure: The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Out of Africa; The Great Gatsby; Swiss Family Robinson, Charlotte’s Web.

            (This list, of course, scrolls infinitely on. My own pulse quickens with literary lust, just thinking about certain titles I long to revisit for no other reason than that I love them foolishly.)

            My dearest friend and I fantasize about creating a newspaper column premised upon exactly this transaction: books as medicine; indeed, as some of the best, most effective medicine ever. The suffering citizen would write to us, describing her or his symptoms. And we wise people-of-the-book would advise that person, in a column functioning like a friendly forum—other citizens could scan it for helpful advice. (My friend teaches now, but she sold books professionally for some time, and still practices this prescriptive therapy.)

Artists and writers, naturally, are not only not exempt from the folds of the ailing: often we may be found slumped at their front lines, wearied and wounded from the good fight, pining for inspiration, for courage, for galvanizing vision and energy. Look no further, fellow pilgrim, than your local library’s or bookstore’s shelves—then follow your heart’s divining rod for the exactly the right antidote. What’s most splendid about this whole exchange is the vastness of the range of brilliant remedies. In fact I’m about to walk right now to my own local library, where three wonderful titles await me.

Nothing feels better.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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Getting Lost

The NSA FilesI like to prepare before I go on a trip, because I like to be on time. It’s a respect thing. I respect other people’s time as much as my own. But that’s not the only reason. I don’t like to get nervous or worry about arriving. I don’t want to be in a hurry, so I prepare so that I can arrive early in most cases. But that’s not the only reason either. Ultimately, I like to read. If I’m early, then I have a few minutes to wait, and I can read during that time.

 

I know dental and doctor offices make you wait, and I’m still there early. Not because I think they’ll change their ways, but because I get to read that much longer. And so, after all these years, I find that I actually like to read in waiting rooms. Recently, I read while my daughter was at the dentist’s office. It was wonderful. Reading isn’t just a pastime for me, of course. As a writer, reading is also study, and I can study anywhere. I love learning new things, which includes how to get a reader excited, angry, upset, sad, or euphoric.

 

Having said all that, I don’t mind getting lost, either – but only when I have nowhere particular to be or if I have plenty of time between appointments. Then, getting lost only means that I get off the beaten track. I see things I wouldn’t normally see, and often experience things I wouldn’t normally experience. A friend and mentor of mine, Robert Moss, says that when your plans are changed, listen closely, because that’s when the universe is speaking.

 

Living in this way is satisfying to me. I get to explore, be on time, and learn throughout my days. I’ve always loved learning, so this has been a great life for my.

Ten Months In WonderlandTerry Persun writes in many genres, including historical fiction, mainstream, literary, and science fiction/fantasy. He is a Pushcart nominee. His latest poetry collection is “And Now This”. His novels, “Wolf’s Rite” and “Cathedral of Dreams” were ForeWord magazine Book of the Year finalists in the science fiction category, and his novel “Sweet Song” won a Silver IPPY Award. His latest science fiction space opera is, “Hear No Evil”, his latest fantasy is “Doublesight”, his latest mainstream/literary novel is “Ten Months in Wonderland”.

Site: http://www.TerryPersun.wix.com/terrypersun

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The “H” Word

Because You Have ToI made the foolish mistake of wondering aloud one evening, to a deeply and complicatedly gifted writing friend and mentor, whether her grown son was happy.

 

She looked up at me from her dinner with an expression like that of someone who’d just been waked from a long, profound sleep.

 

“What is—happy?” she asked, in genuine confusion.

 

Instantly I apologized, knowing I’d stepped in it.

 

You don’t talk to writers about Happy. You don’t assume anything in connection with writers (or maybe artists in any medium) about a simple term for an ideal that nobody knows how to describe, let alone inhabit.

 

But privately, of course, we pursue it—one way or another, whatever we conceive it to be. Even if we’re masochists (which it’s certainly arguable that most writers may be), we pursue the painful art-making because that’s what makes us happy. Right?

 

Well, um, pretty much. Yeah.

 

Because unless you have “a burning desire to do it” as opposed to merely “a wish to do it,” as the venerated author Paul Auster advises young people (in a recent, brief video for the online Poets & Writers), “Don’t be a writer.”

 

“It’s a terrible life,” he continues calmly. “There’s nothing in it but povery, obscurity, and solitude. But if you have a taste for those things . . . .”

 

Just saying.

 

Meantime, what makes me happy? Here’s the list. Exercise. Sleep. Eating and drinking. Music. Reading and always, always, writing. Riding a bicycle. Laughter, by whatever means I can induce laughter, with beloveds.

 

That’s about it. Not necessarily in the above order.

 

In fairness, I should preface with a few precious First World basics: living without pain, with enough to eat, in relative safety. Sleeping warm and dry.

 

I’m thinking of pasting the above list in some location where I can see it many times per day, whether I think I want to see it or not. Because too often I lose track of its essence: the startling given of miraculous life. We’re all so cavalier, so sophisticated, so sure of its infinite supply—until it starts to sputter. Then the bargaining begins, and the terror and the grief—what you might term the Death of Ivan Ilych stuff—unless (I’m guessing) we’ve strived all our years to keep ourselves as electrifyingly awake and aware of the miracle, as we may be capable of doing.

 

Writing and reading help. Thank the stars.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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A Small, Good Windfall

Because You Have ToThree or four times a year I’ve wished I could unscrew my head, leave it at the dental office for an hour, go do the things I like to do and return to collect my head, unfazed and undiscomfited.

 

Alas. I trudged in last week, miserable, for my routine cleaning.

 

The hygienist this time, a young Mexican-American woman, was carefully pleasant as they always are, and again, as they all do—why, why do they do this?—began chatting away at me. Of course my only available responses were a series of sounds, dramatically inflected: ‘aaah-haaggh,’ ‘aggghh,’ and ‘ooghh.’

 

Somehow she’d caught wind of the fact that I wrote, and began to tell me, as she worked, that she’d just discovered reading.

 

Whaghh?

 

I’d heard correctly. This woman may have been in her late twenties. Her life until only recently had mainly consisted of the scramble to get through school, obtain her professional credentials, and land a decent job. (This is my language describing her process, not hers, which was shyer and more polite.) There hadn’t been time—nor any cultural reinforcement—for reading.

 

By reading I mean reading just to read: from wide-ranging curiosity, for no larger purpose than to enter and dwell in the world of the book.

 

It started for her when, one day, a friend recommended a silly, popular potboiler. My hygienist found, almost instantly, that she wanted more, and better. Potboilers led to more serious fare. Sometimes she took herself to movies after she’d read the novels on which they were based, to compare them. No one was guiding or instructing her.

 

I can honestly tell you that her joy, in having discovered this amazing, vast world, expressed itself like Helen Keller’s, at the moment when she’d at last divined the meaning of “water” spelled into her hand by Anne Sullivan.

 

My own misery evaporated. I scribbled (once freed) a list of books for her to investigate, classics that would transcend fashion and blow her mind. Out of Africa. The Great Gatsby. And because she’d read a Norwegian book that intrigued her, Out Stealing Horses. There were dozens more.

 

I walked out of that office with not only clean teeth but an excited heart, fired up by her wonder. Simply by pointing out for her certain beloved stepping stones into it, I found the same brilliant, multicolored Oz opening up all over again for me.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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Hazzard and Greene on Capri

Because You Have ToIsn’t it odd how certain individuals appoint themselves explainers of another country’s culture to their own, native nation? They’ll go live in the Other Place, and then shoot back bulletins to their benighted countrymen and –women.

I think of Julian Barnes explaining France to England. Tim Parks explaining Italy to England (and by default, America). Bill Bryson explaining England to America. And there’s Rick Steves, of course, explaining Everywhere to America, in his cheerful, plainspoken Steves-ology.

Odder still is the fact that (in my view) many extremely gifted individuals cannot quite truly deliver the intangible essence of a place.

From my experience, you’ve just got to be there. In the place, I mean. Seeing, smelling, feeling, tasting, hearing. Not always, but often. Or so it strikes me.

You can read Parks complain about the new train station built at Naples, which on street level appears capacious and sleek and seemingly efficient—but which hides the below-ground wreckage of a falling-apart, ghoulish tram service to outlying towns, which is what all the regular Neopolitans (local people who are dirt poor) routinely use.

But you cannot really feel and understand the shock of this disparity until you’re standing in the shiny new above-ground station thinking, ‘Hey, Naples doesn’t seem so bad’—and then taking the escalator down to what looks and feels like hell.

One lovely and memorable exception to my above theory is the magnificent author Shirley Hazzard, all of whose work (novels, story collections, essays) brilliantly delivers a sense of place. In particular, her Greene on Capri is a masterful inside-look at a time and locale when writers could wander, dream and work with little difficulty in exquisite retreats like Sorrento, Positano, and the Isle of Capri—where Graham Greene lived for long periods and where Hazzard and her late husband, the Flaubert scholar Francis Steegmuller, spent significant portions of their lives together.

They all met up when Hazzard overheard Greene quoting a Robert Browning poem to a friend at a café table; Greene could not, as he reached its closing, recall the final line. Hazzard, who’s memorized swaths of poetry in her lifetime, gently told him the line—“or so very little longer” —as she exited the café. And the complicated, troubled friendship began. (Greene was an embattled soul.)

Greene on Capri, like all Hazzard’s work, is measured and wise. Unlike many other such accounts, it takes you there.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

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The Postmodern Predicament

Because You Have ToI just finished a stunning first novel by Berlin-based American author (and war vet) Greg Baxter, called The Apartment. There is so much that is right about this book, I’d quickly run out of space discussing it here. Wary, wise, and in language so clean it creates a kind of floating surreality, the novel embodies an accurate response to the random absurdity of human history and contemporary life on earth; a response to what the novel terms, somewhere in its own pages, “the immortality of violence.”

 

The moment I read that phrase, I knew it to be true. Absolutely, irreducibly, immutably true.

 

Now: back up with me to the moment I finished the stories and novels of the brilliantly gifted Simon Van Booy. Van Booy’s works posit a world of wounded souls who nonetheless can, and regularly do, reach out with unutterable courage past their own pain to connect with and help one another in meaningful, abiding ways. There is no speck of sentiment about any of Van Booy’s investigations: there is an abundance of tenderness. Tenderness prevails.

 

I knew Van Booy’s vision, too, was true. Yet it pretty much stands in direct opposition to the vision of Greg Baxter.

 

“What do you do about this?” I asked my husband, while we were hiking around the lake in our home city’s park. “When you read two visions, each of which strikes you in the center of your heart as unimpeachably true, though each deeply contradicts the other?”

 

“Welcome to postmodernism,” said He Who Has Taught That Subject as part of his English Lit instruction for a big bunch of years now.

 

“Construct your color chart,” he added, for an analogy. “How much blue? How much green?”

 

Contradictory ideas, in our postmodern awareness, co-exist like colors on a palette. And how much of each we incorporate into our own view of the big picture (speaking very simply), is up to us.

 

It can change every minute. It can be black with simultaneity.

 

It’s not restful, either. Scott Fitzgerald said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

 

And yet surely this is always the writer’s task: to convey that simultaneity. If we do it right, readers recognize themselves, and each other, gratefully.

Because You Have ToJoan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Lifejust nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.

Site: http://www.joanfrank.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/joan.frank.9?fref=ts

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