Des Fruites de Mer – A Poem

Des fruits de mer

 
I knelt beside a tide pool, cold,
the brackish water swirling black,
and studied there a fragile skirt,
a disembodied jelly head.
And I in giving nothing much
toward purchase price of this event,
paid my respects to that great sea,
its living things, as well as dead.

Then at once the abandoned shell
of a red abalone snail
blushed brightly in the dragging surf
and took me near the water’s edge.
This I gathered to carry home.
And there with treasures standing by,
one in the hand, one in the mind,
I thought upon the bounty that
the sea had given me that day –
a shell, the surf, a spray of mist,
salt on my tongue, the sting, the taste.

But best of all, with its great eye,
did judge my worth, no more, no less
than any other passerby,
and blessed with memory instead,
a tattered hood – a jelly, dead.

*Poem originally published in the Summer 2014 California Writers Club Literary Review

The Role of Time In Success

day of the week clockQuality takes time. I wrote the first draft of my current novel-in-progress over a four month period beginning in January 2013. I am now on a third rewrite and the whole project has been completely revolutionized thanks, in part, to taking my time. The thing that happened over time is that the story really took root in my mind. The response of beta readers gave me a lot to think about, and after sitting on it and letting things evolve, both consciously and subconsciously, a whole new narrative developed – a right and exciting narrative that I’m even more enthused about today.

Will you like the final version? I have no idea. What I do know is that being in a hurry to produce something for the sake of getting it out into the world is a mistake. Haste makes waste, and judging by the slew of underwritten works out there these days we’re swimming in it. Waste, that is.

Of course, bad writing is bad writing, and it’s no sure thing that T x W = Q if the writing is bad all along. What time offers is a chance to let things grow into their proper state. For example, the protagonist of my novel comes across in the earlier drafts as stoic, frightened, lost and, frankly, boring. Really she’s underdeveloped. All of the characters are underdeveloped in the early version because, as with real people, it takes time to get to know someone. Not only that, but it takes time to find the right POV, the right storyline, and the right protagonist. The new version of my protagonist is sarcastic, a little edgy, and more fluid. I hope she’s also more interesting. The point here is that an idea doesn’t come fully loaded with all of the answers. There is much to discover along the way. This is part of the joy of writing. Writing, like life, is a journey. And like life it’s the journey that is the point much more than the destination.

Be mindful when letting time work on you. While there is merit in setting your work aside and ‘forgetting’ about it for a while, the real value in giving things time is in thinking and thinking about where the story is and where it needs to go. Returning to my work-in-progress, I knew that I didn’t have the story I wanted. I had an ok story, and I was very tempted, even encouraged to let it fly. What I did instead was give up. I worked on some other things, finished them, and even began a new novel in line with the first. For a little while I didn’t plan to go back to that book. But through encouragement and a little brow-beating I did return. I admit as well that in my absence from the book I thought about it. And as I began to inch closer to returning I started to reimagine how the story should be told. I applied myself to understanding the story I had versus the story I wanted, and began to see how I could tell the version that was in my gut rather than the underdeveloped one that first came out. The time factor yielded this new thing, much closer to my original intent for the story. Weeks of sleep and fatigue, despair and elation, boredom, distraction, and myriad other things resulted in a new paradigm for the old novel.

It will take more time to see what the final outcome is, but I’m ready now to carry on and finish a book the right way. There’s no time frame for when it will be ready. It could be six months or another year. What I’m happy to report at this juncture is that we’re underway again, and with a much better product thanks in large part to taking the time it needed for the real story to reveal itself.

 

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Man or Woman, Every Writer Needs a Room of One’s Own

clouds2 2In 1929 Virginia Woolf stated her claim, on behalf of womanhood, that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4), and in doing so she opened the door (pun semi-intended) to the following question: does not every writer need the same?

While money is always nice at the start of a venture I would argue neither for nor against it as a precursor to success in writing fiction (or any other genre of the craft). Money is a tool that makes many things easier, makes many things possible, but it is not required that a writer have money before being capable of writing. Money can be a greater distraction than anything, and sometimes creates problems of its own to tend to. What one does always need, however, is space and quietude for the imagination to flourish.

Woolf’s timeless essay on the virtues of space and quietude is a defense of more than women’s needs and rights, it is in fact a defense of fiction, and of writing in general, and in my mind it makes the statement that fiction is valid and important in the human experience.

It might be that my revelation is naive, but it seems to me that the popularity of video and the decline in readership has likewise divided entertainment from education, and the value of fiction writing in particular to the fringe of common interest. If there is a piece of writing behind the television program or movie, today’s audience seems to say, then it must have been a good story, as though once turned into a video a story ceases to exist for purposes of follow up reading. The mentality seems to be that if one sees the movie there is no need to read the book.

But to the topic at hand, and whether the preceding is true is or not, it is true that stories must continue to be told. And what Woolf has done for all writers is to keep alive the importance of a writer’s solitude. While often this solitude is painful, loneliness being the chief malaise of a writer’s life, it is necessary and, with habitual practice, preferable to the myriad distractions common in today’s world. A writer must have some sacred space in which to work if there is hope of creating a full career (regardless of money).

A private space for writing, assuming the writer has such a space, also presumes that the writer has some time to dedicate to writing. It is therefore imperative that all of us protect our writing space, ritualizing the approach and embrace of our workspace as a sacred place. There is nothing to apologize for here. One hundred years ago this was the message Virginia Woolf had for the women of her generation, and bless her soul the message is still true today, for all writers. Protect your space, be it a room or a corner, and let it remain holy. The work done there belongs to you, and as with the room itself, it is a thing that is all your own.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

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Fish Tales and Other Stories

fish 4I once knew a boy who was swallowed by a fish.

I was in the wasteland of my tween years, every day like every other day, blended into semi-eternal summer months where the terror of school was a distant nightmare waiting at the entrance of a long, dark tunnel called winter. I was an experienced outdoorsman, having learned to fish and shoot and camp as a toddler. I needed no help baiting a hook or landing my own catch on the banks of any river or stream. So confidant a fisherman was I that I usually only baited my hook once at camp before spending up to half an hour teasing the pools and currents with only that first worm until snagging and landing one of the silvery mountain trout I so often fished for in my youth.

My family and I were deep in the middle of a summer camping trip somewhere in the Sawtooth Mountains of southern Idaho, parked beside an ambiguous river whose banks varied in width by narrow inches and broad feet, the same for its depths, and it was shocking for us all earlier in the weekend to chance upon an occasional spawning salmon or two in the narrow lanes of the waterway, their great scarlet bodies slithering up stream – yards of fish so gigantic in the narrow river they seemed to be mythological. The sight of the creatures created in me a fisherman’s lust so strong that I planned to spend the next day casting my line at any wild thing that would take the bait.

It was late morning as I prepared to set off alone, down river from camp, to try a new hole I had found the evening before. I stood under a shady pine and baited my hook with one half of an earthworm before heading for the water.

The pathway to the fishing spot tailed along the water’s edge over smooth stones that made the footing uneven. To add to the challenge there were branches everywhere, cloying mountain brush that I had to navigate through and around while trying to avoid catching my line. When I finally arrived at my destination I squatted low at the edge of a wide and shallow spot on the river where a small, black waterfall dropped into a deeper pool. I steadied my baited hook over the water, then swung it like pendulum several times, releasing the bail so the line fell at the top of the fall, and watched as the patch of fleshy worm disappeared into the current, my line swirling into the deep.

It didn’t take long before I felt the strong tug of success, and in victory I yanked my pole skyward in an attempt to set the hook. Instead of the familiar resistance of the fierce weight and struggle of a fish on the other end, my hook came flying up out of the water, and immediately sailed weightlessly through the air until momentum spun it repeatedly around the tip of my pole, tangling it into an almost hopeless mess. That clever fish had stolen the worm and left the hook.

I had been bested before and though somewhat frustrated I made the delicate journey back to camp, retrieved another dying worm half from the bait box, and returned many minutes later to try again. I swung the line, dropped the bait, and watched it fall satisfactorily into place. In moments I felt another strong tug, which I answered with a setting motion, and again my hook flew gleaming and bare up out of the water to wrap itself without further ceremony around the tip of my fishing pole.

I felt a granite cloud of anger in my gut, and I scowled. Once again I returned to camp, baited the hook with a fresh worm, and made the treacherous journey back to the magical spot. I was determined to catch that fish, more determined than I had ever been before about catching any fish. Deftly I sent the line flying into the fall, and expertly I set the bail. The line jumped, the hook flew out of the water, and once again it danced around the tip of my pole.

I raged under my breath. I could feel the hot seizure of fury creep over me like a rapidly rising sun, a heat so consuming it was sinful. And as the heat rose my mind turned inward, to the dark center found in every man. I was so mad at the fish, the river, the worm, at everything in all of creation that I turned my anger explosively toward heaven – I got angry at God Almighty Himself. Back up river I turned, every step and stumble a curse. I mumbled under my breath, uttering swears I had only heard on television. I began to chastise God. “Stupid fish . . .” I said. “Might as well have stayed home . . .” I muttered. “All Your fault . . .” and then, as I broke from the brush, my fury at its crazed peak, seeing red everywhere, I glanced skyward and said loudly, “You might as well throw me in the river!” Instantly I pivoted, my arms flying into the air, my fishing pole sailing to the left, back toward the cursed fish as I stumbled forward and fell, spread eagle, only a moment to cry out in terrible desperation for my mother before landing with a great wet splash in the unrelenting river.

I had the bizarre sensation of floating, arms and legs still spread, like a big, pale water bug on the surface of the water. My voice went hoarse, and I kept calling out, “mom, mom, mom” but it was a gruff, chest deep croak, not even loud enough to carry over the gentle trickling sound of the river, and I imagined floating there for the rest of my life, unable to drown, unable to get out, my suggestion taken wholly to heart by Great God Almighty and His accomplice, the Devilfish of that smooth dark pool at the base of a glistening waterfall.

But my cry in the air had made its way up river. Through the forest my mother came wending, the look of fear on her young face, and there she found me, drifting in a foot of water like a paralyzed floaty thing. She scurried to the river’s edge and helped me stand. She held my arm as, sobbing, I retrieved my fishing pole from the below the water’s surface.

Back at camp I lay trembling in the tent, naked and terrified and ashamed, stunned by God’s audacity. I shivered on the floor of the tent, wrapped in a bath towel, with no dignity remaining.

“He almost drowned,” my mother said.

“Probably he didn’t,” my father said, and looked in on me with a soft humor in his eyes. “You all right, tiger?” he asked. I supposed I was even though I wasn’t sure. I spent the rest of the weekend close to camp, and God and I did not talk for the rest of the trip.

I never did catch that fish. Never returned to that spot again. I wouldn’t call it “the one that got away” because I doubt that Devilfish was half as big as it was clever. It swallowed me, though, or part of me. My pride most likely. But I got a story in exchange, and one I’ll never forget. For a writer there’s no better catch than that.

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Rats in the Belfry

Mouse bites2A recent foray into the slush piles boxed in my garage revealed that I have numerous rodent-gnawed manuscripts, most of them now ruined, that I’ve been hauling around for years. The fact that I am surprised to rediscover these stories got me thinking, and has lead to a question I have for all of you – what are you packing around that you may have forgotten about?

In thinking about my nibbled manuscripts there is something to be said about the temporary nature of the things we create. The creative process is momentary, bit by bit, like a factory that produces a new gadget every few moments and then passes it down the conveyer belt before producing another, sometimes similar and sometimes completely different, until an entire warehouse of things has been created and, like my manuscripts, stored away and forgotten – except we don’t want to forget, though we will if we don’t manage our inventory well.

The other day I tweeted that it is imperative for writers to keep a notebook handy for jotting down ideas as they come along. This is old advice and something everyone who endeavors to write should know, but it is an idea worth reinforcing. Memory is as important to our process as the act of writing itself. Without memory we have no source of story, no mind for detail, and certainly no ability to track the inventory of our completed work. The virtual rats in the attic of our minds are as apt to shred our mental manuscripts as are the literal ones busy chewing up our paper stories. Safeguards must be taken.

In the moments of creative insight we tend to feel most alive as writers. When inspiration strikes it is so vivid we cannot imagine how easily the idea will be forgotten. If ever there is evidence that this will happen, however, it’s in the stashed and stored boxes in the garage, under the house, and in the attic where so many forgotten stories lay in waiting. So I ask again – what have you forgotten about? I urge you to go see. Pull up the old files, open the boxes, and bring out your stuff. Chances are you’ll find renewed inspiration and perhaps a story or two that can be re-written, sent out to find new life and a potential home in a journal somewhere. Far better than leaving them to dwell in a dark vault, frequented only by rats, to be turned into a rank temple for some Templeton who hasn’t even the courtesy to send the best parts on to the more clever spiders in the barn.

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Discovered Alter – A poem

Discovered Altar

I watched as several sparrows gathered on the window ledge, today
Each rapping lightly at the pane, pick-plucking at the screen.
A gathering of birds, brown, their beaks agape, gasping for air.
They appeared to be looking for a way through the glass,
Their heads tilted up, gazing at something on the other side.
On the inside ledge there was an arrangement of dried flowers.
A dozen dark red roses stood bound by a gray and fraying cord, the old leaves
Gold but not shimmering, distinguished in their brittle, textured death.
A small bowl, handmade and glazed, lazed at the foot of the bound corner roses
Cradling crumbled buds of maroon with accents of yellow-gold, like incense,
Like potpourri with no scent.
And in a jar, filled nearly to the curve of the neck and capped in black,
Bits and pieces of how many more roses I could not guess.
These, it appeared, were what the birds were after, fluttering up the glass,
Hopping along the outer ledge, knocking to be let in.
I counted five birds at once, alive and kicking at my window,
And then suddenly they were gone, though your arrangement stayed stock still,
Like the image of your smile, impressed in my memory.
Like the echo of something I hadn’t quite heard.

© T. James Moore, 2013
May not be reproduced without permission

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Why It Doesn’t Matter That All Stories Have Been Told

a windowI used to host a movie group called S.N.I.F.F. Snotty Independent Film Fans. Our once-a-month meetings were for the purpose, among other things, of gathering together to view what my SNIFF friends eventually referred to as a W.A.M – Weird-Ass-Movie. The films I chose were deliberately fringe. I sought story lines that were outside the standard plot, usually featuring unknown or foreign actors, and shot in a way that was fresh and unexpected cinematographically, and/or portrayed the human experience in substantially diverse ways.

Similar to my taste in movies, I also gravitated toward unusual music, particularly singer-songwriters who have a rich talent for lyric writing and an unusual style of singing and composing. I’m thinking of artists like Elliott Smith, Jason Molina, Bill Callahan, Vic Chesnutt and, especially, Will Oldham.

I don’t know exactly where my penchant for fringe came from, though it was enforced in later years by some of my peers. We all knew that person in school who was fashionably different from everyone else. Not only was their style of dress unusual but they had broad knowledge of certain things the rest of us did not. They cited Henry and June and Rumble Fish among their favorite movies. They listened to bands you didn’t hear on the radio and smoked clove cigarettes instead of regular cigarettes, or were vegetarian before the virtues of vegetarianism became widely known.

I won’t deny that some of my initial draw to WAMs (movies as well as music) was influenced by a youthful desire to be fashionable. I liked those odd kids and I wanted to know what they were discovering in their weird-ass pastimes. I didn’t realize that I had always been drawn to this sort of aesthetic. Even as a young child I had somehow crossed paths with movies like The Deer Hunter, Midnight Express, and Taxi Driver – movies that shocked and moved me in ways that standard fare never had. What I learned by delving deeper into the interests of my peers is that the richness I had discovered on my own was a bona fide thing. People actually made art like this all the time.

The other day a fellow writer complained that “it’s too bad all of the stories have been told” but he was going to “write on anyway, whether anyone liked it or not” (I paraphrase). When I heard his lament I knew immediately what he thought he meant. Yes, all stories have been told, this is true. Furthermore each story runs on one of three themes: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. These facts have been true since very early in mankind’s storytelling efforts.

The thing that this writer doesn’t yet see, and that all writers must remember, is that while there are no new stories to tell, there are always new ways of telling old stories. In fact, the axiom that “no story is so good it can’t be ruined in the telling” exemplifies the critical importance in telling. Telling a story is all that matters, and it has to be told well. That is all.

The point of my interest in fringe movies and music, the WAMs of those genres, is that this is where I find the most original forms of storytelling. I am inspired by these ways of telling things that are otherwise familiar. This phenomenon exists in writing, too. Examples in recent stories I’ve read include “The Drowned Life” by Jeffrey Ford and “Proper Library” by Carolyn Ferrell. Stories that are unusual, unsettling, fresh.

When we paint with words there are standard things we have a very hard time moving away from, and the page is among these most substantial, permanent elements whether it’s made of paper or a digital display. Until we can pipe our stories straight into our brains via microchips we will have the page. What we put on the page is by necessity some aspect of the human experience. We are limited creatures in what we can experience, and thus we are limited in topic. But beyond that there are infinite variations to what we tell. So the goal is not to write a story that has never been told, but to write a story that has never been told in quite that way, individually our own, better because it is ours. It is the fresh in our eyes, the original in our minds that allows us to tell stories that are interesting to others. Interesting because they are told in just such a way.

That, you know, weird-ass way.

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