Serpent Blog

Wordlessness - Part 2 of the Book Passage Blogs 
This is the second entry in the Book Passage series that I re-post here leading up to my appearance at the famed Book Passage book store in Marin County, CA...

"From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?"

Ernest Hemingway

How do we know how to live? We observe others living. And we glean much from that, but our spiritual selves, our inner voices, our minds, are often difficult to verify and affirm. How do we know if what we are thinking is right? How do we know if what we feel is true and real?

All my life I’ve turned to three things for this validation, inspiration and the joy that is my natural Prozac – music, nature and books.

But of those three only books can fully articulate that which I feel in my own heart but cannot describe or name. The words and observations of women – Virginia Woolf, Ayn Rand, Carson McCullers. The words and thoughts of men – Jack London, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway. So many others. So many others. Who was it that gave voice to my boy’s soul as it cried out to ask of the world what it means to be alive? J.D. Salinger, Hermann Hesse, George Orwell. Time and time again what saves me from despair, and even death itself, are the words of those who’ve struggled before me to understand this life. If not for books, I tell you plain, I would not be alive.

Writing was a gift given to me by something outside of myself that I can feel but cannot name. At times, while writing Serpent Box, I was astounded at the glory and grace of finding words and discovering images that seemed to come from places I had been to in another life altogether. It was never easy, never simple and rarely fun. I struggled to maintain my faith in myself and I often wept and often prayed. Never in my life did I pray with such fervor and conviction. I prayed for the strength to endure the doubts that many expressed toward my undertaking - the insane notion that I could write a book. I prayed for the courage to face the blank page and draw something from it that was real and alive. I prayed for the story itself, that it might come again and fill me. And the strange thing about all that praying was that I was not, and still am not, a religious person.

I wanted to write a story that would help me to understand what life means. I wanted to answer the questions that plague those of us who choose to participate fully in the act of living. What am I, really? Why am I here? Is there a spiritual force behind my existence, or am I some arbitrary package of quanta and energy fields with an evolved mind designed to hunt and procreate more efficiently? In order to even attempt to get answers to those questions, I had to dig deeper into myself than I had ever dug before. And it hurt. And it weakened me. And it caused me to spiral into mini-depressions that were often crippling.

I opened this blog entry with another quotation from my wall of courage. I would turn to this wall before writing, every single day, and read a few words passed down from men and women who endured the soul-wrenching process of extracting from them a new form of truth.

Hemingway has been for me a great mentor. I choose not to focus on his private life, however, but the words he assembled into stories about people moving through life. The quote above has helped me to understand why I have chosen to dedicate myself not just to writing, but to writing beyond my ability, and to strive for something familiar yet wholly new. I was searching for my own faith.

Serpent Box focuses on a group of people who believe in the affirmable, physical manifestation of God on Earth. Holiness Sign-Followers believe in Biblical inerrancy. They believe that the Bible is literal truth, specifically the words of a resurrected Jesus to the unbelieving apostles. He told them that those who believe will be protected from harm by the Holy Spirit of God. This is an extreme example of faith and I was drawn to it for many reasons, but mostly because I had none. Or perhaps I had misplaced it. I lacked faith in myself and faith in the moral universe. Yet I felt within me a physical and emotional pang. I felt a pulling, a tugging, a calling from something clearly outside myself yet connected to me. Serpent Box is a direct manifestation of those feelings.

I am going to close today’s entry with another of my precious quotations. Because these words, these thoughts from other writers, meant so much to me, and in fact buoyed me and kept me on track through the dark times, I want to share them with you so that you can get a sense for what it is I have tried to do in Serpent Box and my other writing. I have tried, and am still trying, to put into words those feelings that rise and rush through me when I see a bee alight upon a flower or a beam of sunlight refracted through the surface of a pond. Whether I have succeeded or not only you can judge.

“The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes he is very fortunate and if the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through – not ever much.” John Steinbeck

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Writing as Religion - The Book Passage Blog 
Dear Readers:

I am re-posting here my daily blog entries on, which I am doing courtesy of Book Passage leading up to my appearance there this coming Sunday. Please forgive the duplication, but I would like all SerpentBlog readers to have a chance to read what I feel is an important thread...

Hello Book Passage readers. As a writer fortunate enough to live in Marin County I have the unique privilege of living near one of the world’s truly great book stores. Book Passage is a bastion of words and ideas, stories and passion, community and ideals, that embodies not just what it means to be a reader, but what it means to be a participant in life itself. For it is through books that human thought and the human experience flow between us and connects us all.

This coming Sunday I have been granted the distinct honor of reading to you from my debut novel Serpent Box. I will be blogging here all week in hopes of sharing with you what the book means to me, but before I do that I hope to convey to you not just plot and theme, but the very essence of writing and reading as I have come to understand those twin pursuits.

Two days ago I read from Serpent Box to a small group of readers at Lee Booksellers in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a small store, tucked away in a strip mall and overshadowed by large chain retail establishments all around it. As I entered the store I quickly felt at home. I immediately sensed the pulse and unique personality of the place, and as I wandered the stacks I began to feel the tingling sensation of joy I get when surrounded by books and people who love them. Independent bookstores, to me, are churches. They are holy places. Each has its own aura of divinity and grace, and though this small store possessed no physical beauty, it radiated a light all its own. Though I get very nervous before a reading, I soon felt buoyed by what I can only describe as a shared bond of understanding for the importance and beauty of books.

At the end of my reading, one of my listeners asked me why and how I wrote my book. It is a question I get constantly and one whose answers always seem to change slightly in the telling. That is because the more I read from it, the more I reflect back upon it, and the more I speak with readers, the more I come to understand what I believe is my calling.

What I told this woman can best be summed up in a quotation I had posted above my writing space during the long and grueling years I spent crafting Serpent Box. It is from Seymour – An Introduction by J.D. Salinger, the single most influential writer in my life. The quote is an excerpt from a letter written by one brother to another, whose faith in his ability to write was waning, as is often the case during the creation of a book that one hopes will have meaning. Here is what Seymour told Buddy, and what I read back to myself almost every day:

“(When) you wrote down that you were a writer by profession, it sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It has never been anything but your religion. Never…..(and) Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? Let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form when you were writing it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished…I am so sure you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions. If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself.”

I often feel lost and lose track of my true intentions, my original reasons for writing. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? Why do I spend all my free time dedicated to books and words and sentences?
It’s remarkable how often I re-discover the answers in you, the readers. I believe the readers in this world are the great hope of it. Readers, who are, more specifically, seekers, are people who care about other people.

If you are a reader, if you love books and stories, then you love the mystery of being alive, and of being human. It is the reader’s inherent curiosity about the human condition that drives her to stories about people, characters, and fictional human beings who are mosaics of herself, and who are struggling with the same questions about love and loss and faith and hope that we all struggle with.
Serpent Box is about faith, but not just religious faith. It is about faith in oneself and how we must all strive for it, fight for it, pray for it, work for it, every single day of our wonderful, terrible, miraculous lives.

It is hard sometimes, being alive. It is hard to grapple with the great questions that can never be answered within a mortal life – Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Thankfully, we have books to guide us. Thankfully, we have words and people who struggle with them, so that we can understand that we all have so much more in common with one another than we realize.

Books are my life. Words are the blood of my soul. Stories, as Tim O’Brien says, can truly save us. I write so I can live and so I can save myself from what can sometimes be a very sad world and a very destructive state of mind. But I am a reader first and a writer second. I could never have written Serpent Box without great writers, who came before me, and showed me how to live.

I imagine that some of you feel this way too. I look forward to meeting you next Sunday. Thank you Book Passage.

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Nebraska, After the Rain 
People will often ask me, why did you write this book? Why did you put yourself through that? And those are difficult questions, and all the more difficult when I ask them of myself, for I often feel lost and lose track of my true intentions, my reasons for writing. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? Why do I spend all my free time trying to simply make people aware of Serpent Box?

It’s remarkable how often I re-discover the answers in you, the readers. For it is the readers in this world who are the great hope of it. Readers, who are, more specifically, seekers, are people who care about other people.

If you are a reader, if you love books and stories, then what you really love, in essence, is the mystery of being alive, and of being human. It is the reader’s inherent curiosity about the human condition that drives her to stories about people, characters, fictional human beings who are mosaics of real human beings, struggling with the same questions about love and loss and faith and hope that we are.

So, here in Lincoln, Nebraska, in a non-descript strip-mall, in a small independent bookstore with no outward charm, nothing particularly alluring about its veneer, I found Kathy Magruder, a reader, a book-lover, a fellow passenger on the ride to gnosis. Kathy’s warmth and hospitality, as well as the genuine warmth of those who came to see me read yesterday, helped me greatly to reconnect with myself, and to discover again why is I write and why I have chosen to endure the pain of writing and publishing a novel.

People who patronize small bookstores, and who keep places like Lee Booksellers alive, are my people. People like those readers who sat and listened to me, a stranger, with no provenance, no history, read for thirty minutes, those are the people I love and admire. In the midst of that reading, I realized again why I endure.

Kathy, I write for you, and for all your loyal customers, and for all you readers out there. It is a great, great privilege to write for you. I truly believe that God has given me a gift when I stand in front of you, and read to you, and share with you my little take on the meaning of life, which is to give and connect with others.

Thank you Lee Booksellers, and thank you Nebraska, a great state filled with warm and friendly people. I sure do hope to return some day.

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Welcome to Tornadoville 
I spent my first night in Nebraska under a tornado watch, with the rain blowing sideways and hail the size of lima beans. Much of southeastern Nebraska was under tornado warnings until late last night and we were not far from that boy scout camp in Iowa. The storm was spectacular. I stood outside beneath the portico of the Hampton Inn in Lincoln and watched the lightning against a black sky. It rained so hard that the water from the downspouts off the gutters blasted out like fire hoses. I haven’t seen such rain since I lived in Maryland. I think it’s good to be reminded often of nature’s power and terrible beauty.

Welcome to Nebraska Vincent.

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I am going back to Nebraska. I was there one time, on my second journey cross country. I had with me then my dog and two cats.

I pulled over at a truck-stop off of I-80, probably just inside Kimball County. I remember it was a Sunday morning but the place was packed. I sat alone of course, but I was the only one doing so. Whole families had gathered here for what seemed a weekly tradition. Mostly the folks were older. They looked to be sturdy people. The men were likely farmers, their wives hard-working mother’s. The men wore foam ball-caps and chewed toothpicks. I could see their hands were broken, their joints swollen. They walked hunched over, nursing various ailments of the back and hips.

The restaurant was a bustling hive of chatter and joy. I had eggs and bacon and coffee and juice, and they were fine. I was treated well and served fast and finished before I wanted to, because in this little corner of nowhere was where I wished to stay.

The men and women I watched were animated in their gestures and interested in each other’s words. Their were children there – young men and young women, and babies and all wore smiles beneath a veneer of resolve.

Why can I not forget this, my first moment in Nebraska? I know it had something to do with the people. They were alive in ways I don’t observe in other places. Not a single one of them looked angry, lonely, stressed, bitter or concerned with anything at all that was not occurring right in front of their eyes at their table. The place had the feeling of some bingo night gathering, with all camaraderie and personality of a church picnic.

Why do I remember this? Because these folks cared about each other. They were, clearly, a community. They enjoyed being together. And for thirty minutes they made me feel, not so much a part of them, but certainly welcome.

I can still remember the color of the sky and the color of the surrounding fields that morning. It was a slate-gray snow sky. The fields were a rich kelpy green. It was a chilly morning when I stepped back outside to continue with my journey east. I turned up the collar of my coat and moved on.

This Sunday I go back to Nebraska, with my heart as wide open as the plain…

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