From the time the bookmobile came up my rural dirt driveway, when I was ten years old, I knew I would study literature in college. I was accorded sufficient accolades in undergraduate school to gain admission to the doctoral program of a large state university.
Then I started to doubt. I lost confidence that I could earn a living with an English degree. There was also something unrewarding about the way college literature programs were structured. There was little joy or adventure. It seemed to have turned into a quest to remember enough facts to repeat them back on written tests.
One professor gave the same tests every year for each of his courses. My undergraduate school’s fraternities and sororities had an ongoing “project” to remember all the questions and pass them on to others. If you were “Greek” you had a good chance to ace every test whether you read the assignments or not. They also had a sizable library of essay papers that had scored well in the past.
So, I changed course, went to medical school, and practiced psychiatry for 40 years. But I always knew I would “come home.” Now retired from medicine, I am immersing myself in a loosely structured self-study program.
I find it very exciting to go where my interests take me. Authors who bored me fifty years ago are now thrilling. Like Henry James. What? Henry James thrilling? Maybe it’s those 40 years in psychiatry that makes fascinating how an author’s life experiences molded his writing.
After a few years of my self-selected curriculum, I just may give myself an honorary degree. How does “Major of English Literature” sound?
In part, this blog is a revisit of one I wrote in December of 2019, about how one might honor an admired writer. If you are interested, that blog is in the archive section on my web site at http://www.edrewbridges.com/drews-blog/honoring-a-writer
I make no secret of the fact that I continue to be obsessed with Ambrose Bierce, American civil war union soldier and writer/journalist. The less than obsessed reader may be familiar with his short story, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. This story regularly appears on the short list of greatest American short stories.
He wrote about the experience of the everyday soldier in war. While I have no experience in war myself, others have opined that no one, before or since, has captured the true nature of the soldier’s experience in battle. What I Saw of Shiloh is a good place to start if one wants to read Bierce on this topic.
Bierce’s writing was not limited to war. His Devil’s Dictionary is a collection of humorous and bitter reflections on the human condition. He has been called the “dark side of Mark Twain.” There’s more, but I need to stop somewhere.
So, what have I done to continue to honor him, and perhaps interest new readers in this remarkable writer? I have written a fiction novel about him. It is called A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce. This book is an imagined afterlife of Bierce and asks the reader for a considerable measure of suspension of disbelief, including the proposition that the book is a collaboration between Bierce and me, between the quick and the dead.
In the book, Bierce has been displaced from the house he was haunting and needs to find an appropriate new residence. On this search he encounters other new spirits and against their better judgement, they join a quest to save a human life. In this version of the afterlife, spirits, or ghosts, should not be able to intervene in the lives of the living, but they are pulled into something new in this life beyond mortal death. Read it as a supernatural mystery or as a reflection on aging, loss, and death.
The book is ready for preorder, for a January 10th release. Order from your favorite bookseller, or reserve a signed print copy through www.page158books.com
I have a new book coming out in January 2022, and I’m having a hard time knowing exactly how to market it. It does not fit neatly into any genre, and I’m not confident who would really enjoy this book.
Why did I write such a book? I’ll tell you about that later, but first let me tell you about the book. It is a work of fiction about an actual historical figure, Ambrose Bierce, American civil war Union soldier and writer. It describes a portion of his stay in the afterlife, and the other spirits he encounters there. He joins a quest to save a human life.
This is not historical fiction because it deals with an imaginary world and his place in it at a time after his earthly death. There is a murder, but not much question who did it, so not actually a mystery in the way that genre is usually configured.
It is not a book about religion, but I do create a version of the afterlife with which some may quibble or even be uncomfortable. Some of it is a reflection on aging and death.
The title is A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce, referring to the part of the story where he is displaced from the house he is haunting and needs another. The house he finds becomes a sort of character in the story.
So, why did I write this in the way that I did? It is about my admiration, even obsession with the writing of Ambrose Bierce. How I encountered his work and the degree to which I immersed myself in his writing is beyond the scope of this brief blog.
In the process of taking a deep dive into his life and his work, I had a dream. This dream suggested the basic story line and then the characters took over. Really. That happened.
For my second blog of August, I welcome a guest. He will introduce himself below.
Salutations. My name is Ambrose Bierce, and I am here to announce the publication of a new book. But how am I here? History records that I died over one hundred years ago.
Set aside your disbelief. The answer to how I can write this now will be revealed in my book, A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce. It will be released in January 2022.
The book is about a portion of my stay here in the afterlife. I was displaced from my previous residence and went in search of a new house in which to reside, or haunt, if you prefer. In finding a new house appropriate for haunting, I encountered other spirits, and we, against our better judgement, joined a quest to save a living human. One might say we transgressed the imperative duty of forbearance.
That spirits from the afterlife could intervene in the lives of mortals is not the only unusual feature of this story. A work of literature created from beyond the grave is a remarkable event. To the best of my knowledge, it is unique.
I say that this is my book, but I must give credit to a living co-author, Mr. Drew Bridges. Without his efforts, this work would not have been possible. How we came to collaborate in this endeavor is described within the book.
A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce is now available for pre-order, under the authorship of Mr. Bridges, at whatever place you shop for books.
I recently listened to an online forum called “Explosive Creativity in the Second Half of Life.” presented by Deanna Shoss of Intercultural Talk.
The topic caught my attention because one of the authors featured was Len Joy, award winning author of books including American Past Time and Everyone Dies Famous. Like Len, I was an aspiring writer in my youth but put this on the shelf, for various reasons, until I was much older.
The discussion was thought provoking but too short. I could have listened for much longer to the participants. I’ll focus on one topic that particularly caught my attention, the sometimes tricky issue of creating fictional characters from people in your life. I adhere to the belief that (almost) all fiction is autobiographical, and that no one builds a character from the void.
This brings me to the issue of creativity in later life. Living a long life gives you more material to work with, more people to draw from in creating a character. Certainly, there are young people who get there quickly, and there are formulas for crafting a story, such as the “hero’s journey” and murder mysteries, but even those are made richer by a lifetime of experience.
The list of people who found writing success in the last half of life is long, and includes Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, Marcel Proust, Annie Proulx, Henry Miller, and JRR Tolkien. With all due respect to the youthful brilliance of Mary Shelley and Stephen Crane, experience in living seems to be a real advantage.
I recently opened an old cardboard box filled with books and papers I had been carrying around with me for a long time. In it were some things I wrote during my college days. We’re talking 1969.
Am I going to share some of these? Not a chance! I’m taking a risk by even keeping them around. I should burn them. I’ll never reveal the pseudonym I took for myself.
Those were the days I was filled with stuff and vinegar, globally angry and entitled. I saw my peers and most of my teachers as small of mind. I put myself alongside the masters. My writing included a start of an epic poem, written in the rhyme scheme of a Spenserian sonnet. The theme of the epic was there is no God, but for survival, one must act if there is, or something like that.
There were two that brought a smile to my face. One was a Shakespearean sonnet for which I won the Lenoir Rhyne College student literary magazine’s poetry contest. The other was an article comparing Huck Finn with Abbie Hoffman. I won twenty-five dollars in a Charlotte Writer’s Club contest for that one.
Reviewing all this leaves me with the feeling that writing something and sailing it out into the world is quite an audacious act. You’re asking someone to not only pay real money for your story or your opinion, but then take something like six hours or more out of their lives to read it.
I guess what we authors have on our side is the enduring faith of the reader that they will find in our work something that at least entertains or informs, and maybe inspires. Quite an assumption, but as a reader, it happens to me all the time.
In college I was an English major, but I lost faith that I could earn a living with this degree, so I went to medical school and practiced psychiatry for forty years. When I retired, I wanted to reclaim my roots. What to do? Open a bookstore!
One learns an entirely new and diverse set of skills by owning a bookstore. Business practices including hiring people, taxes, payroll, insurance, and advertising are just the beginning. The real lessons learned are about the books and the readers and writers.
First, I had no idea that deciding what books I would offer in the store would be like trying to drink from a firehose. So many books! So many very good books by very good writers that most likely would be read by just a few hundred readers. What makes a “best seller?” I’m still trying to figure that out.
The most rewarding part of owning a bookstore is keeping company with writers and readers. When a new customer walked into the store, I tried to make time to ask, “what do you like to read?” Fascinating conversations often followed, often introducing me to authors I knew nothing about.
When a local author asked to have an event in the store I always said yes.
Then there were the quirky characters that spend time in bookstores. One man marched in and asked, “Where is your G.K. Chesterton section?” I answered that I had some titles for that author but no separate section.
“What!” he exclaimed with wide eyes and uplifted palms. “You have no special section for the greatest writer in the English language? Shakespeare and Homer were story thieves! Milton and Joyce were lunatics! And don’t even talk to me about modern writers. Can they even read?” He then proceeded to lecture me about my and the world’s disrespect for Chesterton. He told me he would be back when I figured that out, and he turned and marched out of the store.
All of that is just a glimpse of what owning a bookstore will do for you. One thing it will not do is make you rich.
When I approach the end of a wonderful book I am reading, I feel a sense of loss. I do not want it to end. Is it over? Really? Sure, you can read it again, but without the sense of discovery. Yes, there are more fish in the sea, but it is just not the same.
I feel this most strongly with long books, such as Shogun and Infinite Jest. You invest a lot of time in a one-thousand-page book! But nothing came close to what I experienced with Victor Hugo’s remarkable Les Misérables.
I stumbled into the stage musical of Les Misérables fully thirty years ago. I had no idea what I was about to see. Sure, I had taken college world literature classes and read that part of Les Misérables where the priest buys Jean Valjean’s soul for God with the silver candlesticks. So now it was time to read the book.
I spent months reading it, re-reading sections to get the characters clear, taking notes and driving friends and family crazy by pointing out all the things in the book that the musical left out. Did you know that Javert was born in prison? Did you know the innkeeper became a slave trader?
I had a “relationship” with the book. Then it was over. I felt betrayed. How can Hugo write such a book and then just stop?
I’m feeling a similar kind of regret with a book I have now written and given over to a publisher. The book is A New Haunt for Mr. Bierce, an imagined afterlife of Ambrose Bierce, American Civil War Union soldier and writer.
The book was inspired by a dream about Bierce and began as a kind of ghost themed murder mystery. Then it changed, evolved into a reflection on aging and death. Then I finished. It is due out early 2022 through BQB Publishing.
I think I stopped too soon. I regret that I…
In my last blog I talked about an author, Eric Hoffer, whose ideas from seven decades ago inform the present. In True Believers, Hoffer wrote about the hearts and minds of those who become involved in mass movements. He writes that whether the ideology embraced is politically left or right, religious or agnostic, or conspiracy based, the “believer” is much the same. Such followers are people who have lives that lack meaning. Belonging to a movement gives them purpose.
Hoffer’s ideas translate directly to issues that face democracies today. Citizenship in a democracy places a burden on the individual. Active participation in choosing leaders, at a minimum to cast a vote, is work. Some find it attractive to give away their identity, their freedom, their choices to a powerful person or movement, and thus be unburdened of the demands of citizen participation.
True Believers echoes the work of an earlier writer, Ambrose Bierce, Civil War Union soldier. No one has written, before or after Bierce, with greater clarity of the everyday experience of men in war. Bierce wrote of the horror of war, and of the attraction of men to engage in it. In What I Saw of Shiloh, Bierce writes of the call of the “wizard youth” who would pull him back to soldiering. He compares favorably the rewards of the life of the soldier to the “ugliness of the longer and tamer life” beyond the battlefield.
Hoffer writes that men recently discharged from military service are often prime recruits for mass movements. They leave a time of their life where everything was scripted. A hierarchy of authority freed them from the burden or organizing their lives. Back in the civilian world, they seek structure, belonging, someone to organize things.
I believe the ideas of Bierce and Hoffer inform much that is happening in the US today. Some grow tired of the demands of participatory democracy and find refuge in groups like militias, authoritarian leaders, and the pull toward other processes that would establish a more simple authority in their lives.
During my life I have set out to do many foolish things. I once vowed to read every worthy work of literature ever written. Not there yet. Later I decided I would not waste time on recent writing. I would not read anything that had not passed the test of time, say 25 years, a long period of time for someone who was 24.
Nevertheless, there is value in reading older works. There is a flood of writing today decrying our increasingly “tribal” world. One recent book, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, explores the motivations for, and benefits of, belonging to a group with a distinct identity or purpose.
This topic was examined in 1951. Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman poet and philosopher, wrote The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. There is little, if anything, written today that Hoffer did not address. The best recent work is, at best, rediscovered wisdom.
Certainly, some good things come from passionate affiliations, but there is a truly a dark side to the mass movements that form and evolve in politics and beyond. Hoffer is at his best when he describes the motivations of those who feel they have meaningless lives and have no hope for a better future. Some give up all personal identity and sign on to follow a person or ideology and be a part of something larger.
Hoffer writes that those within mass movements do not require a god, but they need to find a devil. Those on both sides of the political spectrum, left or right, are very much the same. Pick a devil: communists, rich people, those of a specific sexual identity or race, capitalists, Catholics, Jews, technocrats, taxes, the deep state, and much more.
In the end, for some, there is little that gives more meaning to life than to passionately and unashamedly hate someone or something.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.