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.
Creativity in Later Life
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.
The Audacity of Authorship
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.
Reader’s and Writer’s Regret
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…
More About Rediscovered Wisdom
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.
In Praise of the Storyteller
During my 40 years in practice as a psychiatrist, I at times advocated for patients at the North Carolina State Legislature. On one occasion I accompanied a staff member of a rural mental health program to ask for funding. We gave the legislators a thick handout describing various kinds of mental health needs in the population of people we served.
My colleague, experienced in this arena, was not confident that the legislators would even read, let alone understand our data. So, he chose to tell them a story. He began, “I’d like to tell you a story about a boy. His name is Billy.” What followed was a description of a troubled twelve-year-old with many emotional and developmental needs. With a great deal of effort, we had been able to help him a lot.
No legislator nodded off during the story, and several leafed through the handout as the telling proceeded. The punchline was well delivered: we have many Billys that we need to help and we need more resources to do that. Our request was successful.
The above is but one use of the genius of storytelling. The storyteller is one of those oldest professions, the keeper of the culture before the written word and modern media were created. Ancient heroes, villains, wars, floods and more, all kept alive in oral tradition until words could be recorded on clay tablets and later various forms of paper.
We use storytelling to inspire, to sell, to persuade, to entertain, and to remember and be remembered. The fact that we now sometimes put it to print or record and preserve the voice electronically does not change the fact that at the core it is called storytelling.
There is a difference between reading a book and listening to a live storyteller. The differences are beyond this writing, but once you hear a master storyteller present his or her best, you will understand.
Those who aspire to write would do well to first listen.
William and Henry James were brothers, born a year apart in the mid-1800s, sons of highly educated and affluent parents. They took different routes to fame: William is known as the father of American psychology, Henry appears on the short list of greatest novelists of the English language.
I began college as an English major but left that path to attend medical school and practice psychiatry for 40 years. Now I am trying to write novels and other books. I am drawn to the question of who understands people more clearly, the novelist or the psychologist.
During my training for a career in psychiatry, I became obsessed with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Leaping out from the pages of that novel were characters similar to the patients I was trying to classify with the nomenclature of psychiatry. The fact that Steinbeck’s book was a revisitation of the Cane and Abel story from the Hebrew Bible further captured my imagination.
The psychologist James approached people with a rational mind. He sought the meanings of the how’s and why’s of emotions, highlighting the effect of the external event on the internal experience.
The novelist James aspired to accurately observe and describe human life. He sought to portray the “nature” of the human experience including through imagination and fictionalized story. He also went where his brother never dared, to write ghostly horror tales, to embrace the supernatural as literary form. In his work we find chilling examples of sexual exploitation, betrayal, sibling rivalry, and bitter resentment.
While the study of psychology has advanced considerably since William James, for the moment I stand with the novelist. It was Henry the writer who said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” He knew best the human condition.
A Lifetime of Technological Change
While upgrading internet access to my home, it was necessary to move aside some books and an old radio from their usual spot so the technician could do his work. I was struck by the juxtaposition of my modern laptop with the radio, a 1951 General Electric model.
The radio came down to me from some in-laws, and paired with the computer, spanned seventy years of technological change. It operates with “vacuum tube” units, a terminology those of a certain age will recall. It still works! I turn it on about once a year to make sure.
I wonder what things a previous generation heard on this radio. World War Two was over by 1951, but the Korean War was not. Perhaps they listened to information about the 1952 presidential election or even heard Dwight D. Isenhower’s inauguration speech.
Television became increasingly available toward the end of the 1950s, but perhaps they listened to the Nixon-Kennedy debates on the radio. My own family did not get a television until about 1956. We could tune in to three channels.
The books I moved were also noteworthy. I have a first edition, first printing of Atlas Shrugged (1957) and a 1936 copy of Gone With the Wind. Those two books border my favorite modern novel, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (1996).
I value the modern technology. It makes life easier. I cherish the old. It brings me joy.
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.