Serpent Blog

Phototropism - The Book Passage Blog Part VI 
"The truth of my writing – the spiritual truth for which I write – is all that darkness, so clear in its depth that there is, like God in eternity, no seeing to the end of it." David Plante

I had never dreamed of writing a novel. I wanted to write stories. I began by writing short pieces. Serpent Box itself began as a short story that was inspired by a photograph of a boy I saw in a book. The image I saw evoked a feeling and that feeling drove the creation of a story. All stories begin, for me, with a feeling, an emotional tug, a visceral pang. They begin in wordlessness. They begin in darkness. They strive toward light. My stories are phototropic.

I desire to create something like a dream, and I want to make it delicious, so delicious that you will want to read it again and again in order to savor it. This is what Cormac McCarthy is like for me, rich, succulent writing that is both intoxicating and informative to the story he’s conveying. In this way I seek to emulate McCarthy.

Many writers have left their mark upon me. I am an amalgam of those whose sensibilities jibe with my own. But no writer has had more impact on my writer’s psyche than Cormac McCarthy. He is, whether he likes it or not, my mentor. His cadence is biblical. His rhythm, hypnotic. His scope, vast. His dialog, terse and never unnecessary. When I read All the Pretty Horses, a bomb exploded in my head. This, I said to myself, is what I have been waiting all my life to read.

I am not comfortable with the idea of telling a story. I despise plot. I try to convey a sense of story, indirectly, through tone, mood, rhythm, language, and by rendering individual moments that, when juxtaposed, will create a greater and more meaningful whole that does tell a story – much like a film. In some ways I compose stories like a filmmaker, by employing a series of shots. A scene in a film does not require language to be understood. In film, language is secondary to image. I am image-oriented and wish to convey stark, crystal visuals that utilize sense to create a feeling of space and time more vivid than can be ordinarily imagined.

I cannot bear to write anything that feels written. Nor can I bear to read it. I want to be invisible to reader. I want to begin each story with a plunge into a wholly believable world. The first sentence, for me, must act like a vortex. It must capture you without you realizing you’re being captured, for only then can I show you what it is that I see in the story-world. The most difficult part of writing is conveying exactly what I see and feel to you. That is the essence of it all, sharing something I see vividly, and feel viscerally, with you. The trick is to get you to feel it as I feel it and understand it as I understand it. Not to teach, not to tell, but to show you what it is I see. I don’t want you to look at me, I want you to look at what I am looking at. Therefore I must be you and me. I must write as me and read as you.

I wrote Serpent Box to try and reconcile what I feel toward the mysteries of life and the universe, and the concept of God. I was searching for the meaning of faith, just as my young protagonist Jacob Flint embarks upon a quest for his own sense of meaning and purpose. Together, Jacob and I began a journey that helped us to make some sense out of life’s ironies and evils, in the face of its beauty and good. What does it mean to live?

I have used the word darkness to describe that which I write from, working toward a moment of illumination. Perhaps darkness is not the right word, a more accurate word is mystery. That which is unknown, and possibly unknowable, is what I seek to explore. I cannot know for fact that there is a God, but I do know as fact that there is a spiritual realm of energy that I cannot explain. I have seen it first-hand. I have been lucky enough to see a paranormal phenomenon, and not just see it with my eyes, but hear it and feel it pass through my body. That event changed my life, but I will not describe it here. I use it to explain how I look at the world and how I derive my spirituality. Einstein said:

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man. I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

Nature is the lens through which I do my small part to interpret the world. Religion, in Serpent Box’s case a very extreme religion, is the filter through which I attempt to glean notions of personal and spiritual faith. Childhood, specifically the transition from childhood to maturity, is the human condition through which I continually explores themes ranging from wonder and curiosity to humility and morality. Racism and violence are the millstones around the neck of mankind that I still cannot understand, nor accept, nor reconcile, and I wrestle with those demons in my writing, certainly in Serpent Box, which takes on the overlooked history of racial violence in America for which we have still not atoned.

So it is through the process of story-writing that I learn what it is I truly believe. My stories often begin in darkness, and sometimes they end there, but they do strive toward light. I hope that the process of writing will illuminate me, and thus you, the reader. Please forgive me if I fail. I have so, so much yet to learn.

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The Joy of Reading Aloud - Book Passage Part IV 

Now that I’m drawing nearer my reading at Book Passage I am nervous. I wonder if anyone other than my wife and children will be there to hear me read. Serpent Box is my first novel so I have not done many readings. Those I have done were attended by few. This is to be expected. No one knows who I am and very few know of the book. I, as many book store events managers have painfully reminded me, do not draw.

I discovered this the hard way at my first reading at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, a wonderful old bookstore. When I arrived that night I found a room full of empty chairs before a raised lectern with a microphone, beside which stood a tall glass of water. I waited for someone to arrive, incredibly nervous. I had rehearsed all that day in my hotel room and was confident I could deliver an engaging read, but I do get stage fright, and worried that my voice might fail me. I was kindly told that on such occasions, for a new author, that it was possible no one would show, and at ten minutes past the time set up for the event it was apparent that would be the case.

In some ways I was relieved. But I had come all this way, and spent money, and practiced, so of course I was also crushed. In many ways I began writing simply so I could read to other people, for reading aloud brings me great joy. At quarter to eight it was clear there’d be no reading, so I signed the thirty books they had sitting there at the empty autograph table and I shook the kind hand of the events manager as he consoled me. He was very sweet, and he promised to have me back for my next book. Yes, I said, for my next book.

I packed up and put on my coat and walked the loneliest, saddest ten yards of my life to the front door. As I passed through the doorway, a woman stopped me. She was holding a copy of Serpent Box in her hand and she was reading the back cover, which bears my photograph. She grabbed me by the arm and said, hey, wait, aren’t you the guy reading tonight? Yes, I said. I was supposed to read tonight but no one showed up. She smiled. I showed up, she said.

We walked downstairs to the empty room with the chairs, and the lectern and the glass of water and this very nice woman, this angel, sat down in the front row and gave me her full attention. I read to her. I read my heart out to an audience of one. It was a very moving, very intimate experience, and it took great effort to keep from weeping. The connection I felt with her, a stranger with whom I shared the love of books, was one I will never forget.

As words flow through your mouth they become tangible, visceral, and somehow changed. Reading aloud enhances the pleasure of words and the impact of a story. Story-telling began, after all, as an oral medium. The spoken word, like music, fills the heart and permeates the flesh. Any parent who reads to her child a well-written book can attest to this feeling. Anyone who has sat and listened to his grandfather, as I have, tell the story of the Normandy landing and the march to Berlin, or some other tale of war, can speak to the power of such a telling.

The human voice is the blood of our souls. The language of the face, and the eyes, imbues nuance and emotion that defies the printed page. Reading aloud connects the reader to the listener, and the listener to the reader and both to the story in a most powerful way, and if the reader happens to be the writer as well, the voice becomes fixed and inseparable so that all his future works will carry it and become suffused with the inflection, tone, cadence and spirit that was intended by its creator.

Listening to a writer read their writing is the most intimate, instant and illuminating of shared artistic experiences. We cannot watch a painter paint or a filmmaker edit or a photographer composing a shot. Live music is the only parallel I can draw, and the performance of a band or vocalist who is on their game is as powerful if not more so, but bear in mind the writer is stripped naked, unaccompanied, completely alone. And likely, he or she has spent the last several years creating what is being read. I can still recall listening to Michael Cunningham read from The Hours, and I get the chills. I still see his face and hear his pain. What a wonderful gift he gave me. I will carry his voice forever.

When I completed my reading that night at Elliott Bay, I was sweating and trembling. The excerpt I read is emotionally draining. It is twenty-seven minutes describing the journey of a boy back to the place of his birth – the hollow of an ancient oak tree, where blacks had been lynched as recently as the day before. It was not an easy chapter to write, and it does not get any easier to read over time. I relive that journey anew every time I read it, and every time I read it I feel something different.

I consider myself very lucky and indeed blessed to have been given this book to write. And reading it to book-lovers is a privilege that I cherish. I hope you will be there this Sunday, but if you are not, I will be okay. I now know that an audience of one is fine, and that one eager listener is all I need and all I could ever ask for.

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Staggering Sextillions of Infidels 
The Book Passage Blogs: Part IV

"If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge." Rilke

So that is what I did. As I groped for images and ideas through which the story of Jacob Flint could be revealed, I began each scene, each chapter, as close to the natural world as I could get and tried to view the essence of each person and each scene through nature. Nature, which was here before us. Grass, trees, streams and sky. Birds. Insects. Light. Nature is the most prominent character in Serpent Box. It is the fabric that binds the people and events and the medium through which everything in the story transpires. The natural world, the woods, is a place I admit, I feel more at home in than in the world that people have constructed to combat it. Write what you know, they say. This is what I know.

It is no accident I chose to write a book set in the wilds of Appalachia. I am drawn to places dominated by trees and ruled by wildlife. My people are very much a part of their environment. They use the raw materials available to them to heal and cure, eat and worship. Perhaps my favorite person in Serpent Box is the mystical granny-woman, Gertie Bates, a midwife and folk-healer who acts as Jacob's oracle and spiritual mentor. Small, frail and well over ninety years old, Gertie Bates is a woman of the earth. Part yarb-doctor, part spiritualist, she draws all her strength and all her wisdom from the very ground she walks upon. She trusts what the world has given her and believes in the powers of animals, plants, trees and stars.

We are a part of nature, never separate from it, never independent of it, and when we look at ourselves through the lens of the natural world something miraculous happens. We are humbled. We are soothed. We gain perspective. And, we experience that rarest of emotions; joy. When we begin to truly recognize how incredible it is to simply be alive, to be a thinking, wondering organism capable of understanding our inner workings and our origins, when we think about DNA and atoms and weather and wildlife, we cannot help feeling lucky, being grateful, being cowed. Walt Whitman says:

"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars, And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest, And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven, And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery, And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue, And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."

It is that supreme humility, that child-like wonder, which keeps us grounded and helps us to maintain the feeling that life is a precious, great gift.

In Serpent Box, the Cherokee snake-hunter Baxter Dawes says:

"... a man in the woods is about the purest thing there is in the world and the closest he can come to knowing God. A man can never buy with money this thing that the Lord gives him for free...The sense of awe and respect one derives from the trees and the earth and all things that dwell in between..."

I have tried to instill this reverence for the world and its wonders in all the people who inhabit Serpent Box. Be it the army field surgeon Sanchero, ruminating on the wastes of war, the redeemed murderer Sylus Knox, who recognizes and reinvents himself through a reconnection with the earth, the fallen preacher Hosea Lee, whose self-imposed exile in the woods leads him to greater truths, and to Jacob Flint himself, who takes refuge and solace in the nature that surrounds him.

The way I wrote Serpent Box, the method I used to figure out how to write it, was to trust in nature and to try to serve that which is poor, humble and too often, overlooked. The result was that I was staggered, and more importantly, I am no longer an infidel to that which has created me.


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Groping Your Way in Faith - The Book Passage Blog Part 3 
How does a story form? Somehow, disparate words and images coalesce into something that resembles narrative thought. Stories are mysterious things. Stories that do not come directly from our actual lives are even more mysterious, they’re mystical.

Often I am asked how I, a New Yorker, wrote a story about a spiritually gifted Appalachian boy. I do not know the answer. The story was given to me as a gift. When you take a writing class you are often told to write what you know. I did not know the world depicted in Serpent Box. I did not know the good people of the hills and hollows of Tennessee. I did not know a Holiness sign follower or a snake handler. But what I did know, and do know, is what it feels like to not know. I know what it is to question one’s faith. I vividly recall the helplessness of being a child. I have clear memories of what it means to be shunned, ostracized and beaten, simply for how you look. I have never let go of that feeling of ignorance that seems to permeate your very existence when you are a boy up against a very large and confusing world. I knew my focal character, Jacob Flint, perhaps better than I knew myself.

Writing a story is a quest. You search, often blindly, for answers and direction. You seek out the next word, the next sentence. You build paragraphs and pages out of images – at least I do. I see a thing, then I record the thing. When the writing is going well it is not so much thinking as it is seeing. I will often close my eyes and try to squeeze an image out if the words themselves cease to flow. It is amazing that this actually works. It’s almost as if you can pry that tiny door between your conscious and unconscious mind open, for just a moment or two, to let the truth escape. It rarely stays open long. And then you are faced with the blankness that lies beyond your last completed sentence. That blankness, that null space, can feel as vast as the cosmos.

I wrote Serpent Box alone, having written nothing of significance before it, having not studied writing beyond a few night courses, having no background in English Literature or journalism. I had no idea what to do or how to do it. There were times I faltered and shut down. But I had angels watching over me, angels in human form, who gave me more than encouragement, they gave me keys and crutches.

My dear friend Andrew L. Wilson, who has written one of the best novel’s I’ve ever read (remarkably, as yet unpublished) would often give me the small bits of advice and love I needed to get through each day. He sent me this quote during a very dark time during the writing of Serpent Box when I was desperately searching for a path to send the story. You see, I made up Serpent Box in the moment. I had no plot, no vision, no clue as to what the story should be or where it might take me. I simply sat down each day and wrote intuitively, building on that which I had written the previous day. Often that would lead to dry spells and moments of blind panic. What would I do if the next piece of the story didn’t show itself? I learned the following lesson late in the game, but hold it now as one of the most important concepts I’ve ever ‘learned’ about the art of writing:

“To ask for the whole thing cut and dried at once is a great error. There is no use sitting down waiting for clarity, believing that your work will reveal itself in a flash and show you the roads to it free of charge. You have to grope your way in good faith and be content with little. In that way you keep your strength and courage alive. One frequently meets a type of very talented artist or poet lacking the capability for such slow, sinewy search, unwilling to put his hand to his work until he has got it as a kind of gift, and in some mysterious manner - with all difficulties and doubts blown away. Meantime, however, the strength seeps out of him simply because of lack of exercise, just like a muscle languishing away when it lies unused, and people with much less talent but with more contentment [desire] surpass him easily. Whoever believes himself wise and "a genius" once and for all, has closed all windows and doors to the truth, but whoever is aware of his weaknesses has opened them and will be rewarded.”

Vilhelm Ekelund

Once I accepted this, and I did so instantly, I soon realized that the missing ingredient in my ‘process’ was faith. The belief that the answers would come. The feeling that somehow a spark would reveal itself. A trust in the natural world and the random order of things, and that simply by living, observing, listening, moving through life and interacting with it, one would discover ways and means in which to push the story forward. Because I was pulling the story out of myself I needed faith in myself and in that amazing serendipity that always seems to deliver what you need when you humbly and earnestly ask for it, when you seek it, when you grope your way in good faith.

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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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