Guest Blog Post, Darrin Doyle: What’s Not to Like?

Darrin DoyleOne of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.”  The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”

When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”

Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.

In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.

In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.

The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!

Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?

The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.

So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.

I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.

Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.

But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.

Esalen: A Place for Exploration

Intern Guest Post: Esalen: A Place for Exploration

Earlier this millennium, I learned from my friend Stan about the Esalen Institute a remote 27 acre retreat on the Big Sur coastline between Monterey and San Luis Obispo, California. Digging, I learned that Esalen was founded in 1962 as “an alternative educational center devoted to the exploration of what Aldous Huxley called the ‘human potential’—the world of unrealized human capacities that lies beyond the imagination.” I was intrigued. So in the summer of 2004, I made my first journey to Esalen.

I arrived at Esalen with my friend Stan after driving the better part of a day from Orange County, departing from civilization at San Luis Obispo and another 90 miles of the 2-lane Pacific Coast Highway, California 1. Arriving, I was taken by the striking beauty of the place. After checking in at the lodge, we found our simple but very comfortable accommodations. After a brief exploration of the grounds, we headed to dinner at the lodge. Esalen’s meals are served camp style and the food is excellent. Meat, dairy, vegetarian, vegan, and raw foods are served at every meal and produce is picked daily from Esalen’s five-acre organic farm.

Stan and I had enrolled in a five-day workshop led by Steven Harper, an eco-psychologist, wilderness guide, author, and artist. At 8:30 p.m. on arrival day, we had our first session, an orientation to the week’s activities and brief explanation of the goals of the workshop. Harper’s work focuses on wild nature as a vehicle for awakening. For the remainder of the week, he took us for practiced meditative walks through four diverse natural areas in Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness—a deeply satisfying, introspective experience. After 20 or so years in business, I so needed to reconnect with nature and Steve’s workshop was the ideal medium.

Since that first workshop, I have returned to Esalen four more times and each experience has brought new perspectives and opportunities for inward exploration. For instance, a workshop with cultural anthropologist Dr. Angeles Arrien, The Four-Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer utilized Shamanic dreaming techniques and practice that allowed me to reconnect with long forgotten experiences in overcoming personal and professional challenges today.

Another time I came with my wife and young children for a week-long session with Rick Jarrow that helped me change course in my career, providing the impetus for me to return to school. Esalen has a children’s program for seminarians through its Gazebo Park School Early Childhood Program and babysitters are available during evening sessions.

In addition to the workshops, Esalen is known for its Arts Center, distinct Massage style, movement and activity programs, and mineral Hot Springs. Esalen produces two catalogs per year covering 500 workshops on diverse topics including writing and visual arts. Here are a couple of examples of courses from the July – December, 2012 catalog:

Writing the Wild led by Marisa Handler, author of Loyal to the Sky, which won a 2008 Nautilus Gold Award for world-changing books. Her essays, journalism, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, and she teaches creative writing at Stanford and the California Institute for Integral Studies.

Framing Nature: Photography as Meditation and Mirror led by Andy Abrahams Wilson, an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. Recent projects include the Academy Award semifinalist Under Our Skin and the PBS broadcast The Grove. His focus is using the camera to create a bridge between ourselves and our environment.

Generally, depending on my level of stress it takes up to two days to melt into the Esalen experience. It is for this reason that I recommend at least a five-day workshop, ideally seven-days with a five-day and a three-day workshop.

Guest Post, Lori Brack: On Completeness

Contributor Guest Post: Lori Brack

In the midst of things, at the between of things, I wonder why I ever believe in completeness. Again, my plans for a project, my idea that I can predict how I will approach something, my faith that these things are manageable – all slide away.

Without meaning to, with other things to do and books to read piled around me, I began reading Ernesto Pujol’s new book Sited Body, Public Visions: silence, stillness & walking as Performance Practice. On that rainy gray morning I read it until I had to stop on page 49. I stopped because every page calls me to write and write in response, in collaboration, in imitation. I have fallen into the trance of a voice, a mind, a generosity. Pujol’s writing is doing that thing to me that is the reason I go to art: he is writing things I have guessed, have intimated, have intuited, have maybe even known, but never articulated. So reading feels like coming to myself even while I am reading the inner and outer life of someone quite unlike me.

I want to write and write. I want to quote and quote. I want to ask and ask: Must I “finish” in order to respond? Must I get all the way to the end – of the book, the day, the job, the semester, the life – in order to be moved, to know something? Here is Ernesto on his work as a visual and performance artist: “It takes a passage of time, sometimes a lifetime, for an art practice to mature, to know itself, to reveal its secret depths and complexities. . .” So Ernesto answers me, perhaps. The ends of things, or maybe the pauses between things, bring maturity, knowing, revelation. Every page is a revelation. Every page ends and then goes on as my hands turn and turn, my eyes leap and shift, wet orbs of light and reading.

I have known Ernesto for a little more than 10 years. We have collaborated on two projects – an exhibition and a work of performance – in that time. His Field School Project published my first chapbook in 2010. He commissioned the work as a script for Farmers Dream, an all-night performance in a warehouse in central Kansas. My long poem is a partial, unfinished and unfinishable memoir of a span of difficult months in my life when I turned to the work that Ernesto envisioned. I hoped the project might save me. I used the assignment as an opportunity for reading and re-reading my grandfather’s farming journal. He wrote his daily activities, the weather, his goings out and comings back in the same big book each day from 1907 when he was a bachelor at 19, until he was a married 30-year-old father of two in 1918. My mother would be born in 1925, by which year he no longer wrote every day. On March 9, 1912, he wrote “Cut wood in morning. Shoveled sand out of river in afternoon. Went after milk. Spotted heifer (Star) was fresh about 4 p.m. Milked cows. Clipped my hair at night.” He recorded the middles of things – chores that need doing and then redoing because of the fecundity of nature.

I did not meet this grandfather who worked with his hands and back, who supported the people I grew up knowing best – my mother and her sisters. He died when my mother was 13. I have a photograph of her, freckles over her nose, sitting with her mother on the still-humped grave on his birthday in August 1938. In 2001, she would die on the same date, long past knowing the calendar in her illness, living the last weeks of her life entirely in the bed her parents had bought and used a lifetime earlier. When I visit my sister, I sleep in that bed. I am not finished sleeping yet. It is not only the photograph or the smooth wood of the headboard and footboard that know.

Ernesto writes, “You are dead. You are reading this, but you are dead. You died long ago, but you are being remembered. A child is remembering you.” In those sentences I become the girl at her father’s grave, I become her father I know only through his handwriting, I become my 75-year-old mother at her death; I become myself.

The grave is so new that only a temporary marker, a round metal sign with letters pushed into slots, leans a bit in the foreground. Toward me. I can almost make out his name and the single date, but I am imagining into the picture, doing what I do best: reading through a lens of what reading suggests I understand. Already, stopped only at page 49, I flip back through Ernesto’s book looking for what I think is there. Are the words printed or are they the ones I put there as a reader, as a writer?

When Ernesto was small, he writes in the first paragraph of Chapter One, he was able to make it rain, his favorite weather, “a child of the shade, moist moss and wet ferns.” How often have I written about that shade? Mine was Midwestern, shaggy elm tree and shrub shade of back yards. His was tropical island shade, fronds and leaves. In our separate and still lived lives, we share greengray timelessness, when morning and afternoon almost all the way to night cast the same light. Under the rough spreading bushes of the back yard, I planted my first seeds – black grenade shapes of four-o-clocks also called mirabilis (amazing, wondrous), which opened in late afternoon shadows when the temperature dropped and the soil went cool against bare feet.

I will go on reading this gentle book past the page, each page where I stop. I will go on writing it as a reader writes, incompletely and through the half-illuminating, half-blinding lenses of my experience. I write from a dim room where I am comforted by the scents of moss and milk. Writing and reading as a writer are the ways I know to re-enter that room and when I find a book like Ernesto’s, that miracle in my hands, it helps me through the doorway and I am t/here.

Ernesto Pujol’s memoir/performance text is available through McNally Jackson Books, New York.

Guest Post, John Gist: Confessions of a Book Burner

Confessions of a Book Burner   by John M. Gist

johngistI am a burner of books. The blasphemers Nietzsche and Rimbaud. The madmen Kafka and Borges. I have burned them all.

It started on a jaunt into the wilderness. A day off from working at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. I was the maître d’ of the restaurant, an odd job for a rural teenager just off the high plains of nowhere Wyoming. I seated customers from Europe, Asia, and towns like Gallup, New Mexico. I didn’t like it. I hadn’t read Sartre yet, but already had an inkling that hell is other people. I craved silence.

When the chance came to get away into the woods for a day, I jumped on it. A work acquaintance (I can’t remember his name or where he came from) drove to a trailhead and, daypacks slung on our backs, we set off into the woods. Blue sky. Quiet. The makings of a good day. I brought some books to read.

We hiked the trail for a couple of hours following the neon orange markers tacked seven or eight feet high on the trunks of pine trees. I assumed the markers had been placed so high for the benefit of snowmobilers. It was Yellowstone, after all, and the snow really piled up in winter. Yellowstone Park was a snowmobiler’s dream.

Suddenly, the trail was covered with snowpack. It was early May, if I recall correctly, and though we had been steadily climbing, we didn’t expect it. We stopped and consulted the map (no GPS in those days). According to the topographic, the trail looped back around and down to the main road in a few more miles. We decided to risk it. We walked into the snow.

The going was tough. Our feet got cold. We had failed to bring coats and shivered in plaid flannel shirts. We were stupid and we knew it. We had made up our minds, though, and the way forward, according to the map, was shorter than the way back. We kept at it, feet breaking through four-foot drifts.

I had just wanted to get away for the day. Find a spot under a pine or in a meadow and sit and read and bask in quiet.

A bank of metal gray clouds, intrepid and menacing, appeared out of nowhere muffling the light. Cold breeze. By dusk we were in trouble. Snow fell from a sky we could no longer see. The neon markers on the trees became less and less visible. My companion wanted to go on. I disagreed. We needed fire and daylight. Then, like good boys, we’d turn around and head back the way we came.

By the time the decision was made, it was almost dark. We gathered wood by breaking dead twigs and branches from nearby pines. There wasn’t any kindling so I did what I had to do. I tore pages from Thus Spake Zarathustra and wadded them up and lit them. Snow fell thick. We warmed our stiff fingers and curled next to the meager flames.

By the time morning dawned, blue and icy, I had burned all four of the books in my daypack. I rolled the pages into tight little cylinders and fed them to the fire.

When we made it back to the Old Faithful Inn, I locked myself in my room and soaked in a hot bath. Blisters covered my thighs and shins, so close had I been to the fire of burning words.

I refused to go to work that evening, exhausted from exposure. The manger fired me and told me to leave by the next day.

I replaced the books upon returning to civilization. It was the least I could do.

Every now and then, when backpacking in the Gila Wilderness, I burn a book in my campfire after I finish reading it. I burn only those books that I deem well written and deep. The others I donate to the used bookstore back in town. Ceremony.  A way with words.


Craig Childs At Changing Hands Bookstore

On Monday September 27th, author Craig Childs will be reading at Changing Hands Bookstore from his latest book, Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession.

If you read and enjoyed Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer, Craig Childs’ nonfiction would fit well into your list of reading interests. Childs writes from his personal experiences in nature, and in Finders Keepers, he explores the clandestine side of archaeology. Of the nonfiction I have had the opportunity to read, Childs writing stands out as creative and bold.

Since the publication of his first book in 2000, Childs has published nonfiction including The Secret Knowledge of WaterHouse of Rain, and The Animal Dialogues. His writing has also been feature in The New York TimesLos Angeles Times and Men’s Journal. In addition, he frequently provides commentary for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

While reading his website (http://www.houseofrain.com/) I discovered that you can listen to some of Childs’ NPR broadcasts and audio clips from his travels using iTunes. His website also offers a complete list of his published works as well as an anecdotal “about the author” written by Childs.

For more information about the Craig Childs reading and other upcoming events at Changing Hands Bookstore go to http://changinghands.com/.