Friday, May 8, 2009

Random Precision, an Introduction

The essay below is the introduction for a book that does not exist. Well, let me explain. A little more than two years ago I finished a collection of essays that still is yet to be published. I plan to get that book, which is now called Houndini and Other Tales, released through this summer. Anyway, I have been writing since Houndini was written, and the other day I realized that I had more or less written another book, which will be called Life in the Middle Lane. In addition to the titular essay, the new book will include the pieces I have on the blog right now and several longer stories, including "Thrive!," "Blue the Psycho Kitty," "Does a Deer Defecate in the Lake," "Sparks Fly High!," and others. The introduction is called "Random Precision" because it's a phrase from the Pink Floyd song "Shine on you Crazy Diamond." and the first book's introduction is called "Heroes for Ghosts," which is from "Wish You were Here." I'll probably have to change both titles to avoid prosecution. Enjoy, if you can.

Random Precision

If you are reading these words, chances are you are related to me or my wife. If you are a relative, I'd like to say, "How ya doin'?" If you are not related to me, then I want to thank you for making such a wise purchase.

The pieces collected here have been written, slowly, over the past two and a half years, since the drafting of my first collection, Houndini and Other Tales, was completed in January 2007. Surprisingly, publishers did not leap at the chance to publish Houndini, but I nonetheless began work on the follow-up book because that is what you are supposed to do, I think. The first book is structured around a chronological framework: it begins in 1988 and ends around 1994. The stories told here took place in "real life" in the years following the conclusion of Houndini, but they are not arranged chronologically. I have actually attempted a thematic structure in this collection. The reader can decide if it works.

* * * *

Ernest Hemingway once said that he tried to write stories in the same way that Cezanne painted paintings. But if you look at a Cezanne work and then read a Hemingway story, you might not immediately see a similarity. I think Hemingway wasn't talking about the result but rather the approach and the perspective. Similarly, when you read my stories and essays, you might not be reminded of a Tom Petty song. But that is often what is in my head when I write. Right here, I would quote from some of Tom's (and his writing partner Mike Campbell) songs that have inspired my writings, but I don't think I can afford the royalties. It could be that Tom wouldn't mind if I used some lines, but the record company might have other ideas.

I come back to Tom's lyrics to remind me of what I think writing is about: clearly distilled images, moments--described with a sense of humor and humanity. I also, in case the reader is interested, admire songwriters like Lyle Lovett, Paul Simon, Christian singer David Crowder (he uses the word "antonym" in a song), Dave Matthews, and, of course, the Boss. The Christian band Third Day is also a favorite: the album Time must be heard.

When I was young, I started what I thought was an experimental novel that was going to use lines from rock and roll songs throughout to expose the emptiness of our pop culture and philosophy. What a nightmare that would be to get the permissions for all those songs. I gave up the book for academia, and now, more than twenty years later, I write stuff that amuses me.

Life amuses me, even though my wife accuses me of becoming a grumpy old man because I worry about the neighborhood and I'm bugged by the neighbors who clog up the street with 14 cars every night and the people who drive their cars on the grass at the park just so they can party with their car stereo close by. And the graffiti--don't get me started on the gangbangers and their graffiti. But, really, even my grumpiness amuses me. Grumpy is comical, just ask the other dwarfs.

Let's not confuse grumpiness with anger or pain or sadness. We have these feelings all around us today, but for the most part they do not enter into these writings. The people I observe, though, are not immune from trouble and suffering. And while our troubles complicate our lives, none of us would be very interesting without complications. I write about the more comical complications.

I admit that I write because it soothes my enormous ego. It pleases me greatly to express myself, especially when it's about me--even if I'm exposing my own foolishness. I also write for my kids (for the ninas) and my beautiful wife. Like any other dad, I want my kids to be proud of me. Let's face it, though. I am a doofus. I know it. The kids know it. Some of the American people know it. So I will inevitably embarrass them--sometimes on purpose. My writing shows the kids that the old man has some skills. Really, though, I write because I hope that the girls are encouraged by it to pursue their own skills and abilities to their own satisfaction.

I feel some pressure to succeed when I write. I need to develop a list of publications and a strong readership to overcome some skepticism about my literary pursuit that exists in my corner of academia. I have recently developed a new Master's degree in writing at my university, and it would help if the program director were a successful writer. But for me, success is counted sweetest when Paula, my wife, reads a new piece and says, "It's good." And if she really likes it, she will say where it deserves to be published. At that point, I'm satisfied with my work.