Author/Auteur

Thoughts on writing, publishing, and the creative life

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, Rembrandt 1653

I recently self-published two works of fiction: a fantasy for kids (and adults with active imaginations) entitled How Mother Rat Invented the World and a fantasy adventure novel set in the Homeric Bronze Age entitled Swarm Metamorphosis. Although the process of editing, book design, cover creation, printing, distribution, and marketing proved to be a fascinating experience, it also revealed an unexpected tension between my roles as a writer and a publisher.

In entitling this article Author/Auteur, I’m borrowing a term from film-making. An auteur has artistic control over all aspects of a film’s production: writing, directing, casting, producing, and promotion. This contrasts with the division of labor generally involved in studio productions. (For a humorous yet loving take on the joys and trials of being an auteur, watch the film Day For Night by one of the original auteurs, the wonderful Francois Truffaut). The analogy with self-publishing is clear. As a literary auteur, I could not draw on the resources of a “studio,” i.e., a publishing house—I had to do almost everything myself. Although I found self-publishing rewarding (I even became something of a font geek), I did not anticipate how the experience would transform my relationship with my novels—and change me as a person.

While I was writing, my involvement with my books was detailed, prolonged, and intimate: I took Swarm through 21 major drafts and at least a hundred minor editing passes. But, as I moved through the publishing process, the sense of deep connection with the text that accompanies such intensive writing and editing diminished. Although this is a normal consequence of publication and the need to finalize the text, self-publishing only accentuates it. Each phase of book design, printing, distribution, and marketing seemed to take me farther from my intimate relationship with my text. Now, when I read through my published books, I experience them as having been created by someone simultaneously myself and not myself, a doppelganger whose strangeness is only intensified by his familiarity.

How can I explain this? What does it mean for me as a writer and a person?

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Tara

Image by William Stubblefield

It snowed heavily last night, and
I found myself waking to the task of
Shoveling a hundred feet of driveway.

“Hire someone with a snowplow;
You’re too old to be doing this,”
My wife said in her female wisdom.

“I’m OK,” I insisted.

“You’re seventy-four,” she said,
Punctuating her argument.
“You don’t have to prove anything.”

“I shovel my own driveway,” I grumped
As she retreated to her morning rituals.

I walked out into the cold—
Twelve degrees should feel colder,
I thought as I paused, shovel in hand
And remembered the deeper reason
I chose this chore for myself—
A reason beyond masculine vanity.

Surrounded by trees heavy with snow,
The constant hum of traffic muffled
By jeweled powder, I felt the silence
Enfold me. Dog walkers and joggers
Comfortable inside their homes,
I imagined myself the sole possessor of
The beauty the storm had left behind.

I began the ritual of clearing the drive:
Push the shovel through the powder;
Tap the shovel’s edge on the ground
To free the snow that stuck to it;
Watch it fall among the piles
Accumulating beside the driveway;
Pause; repeat—a solitary
Meditation on the ache
Of muscles in a body grown old.

We live in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains,
Near the National Forest. A small
Herd of deer—refugees
Adapted to human encroachment—
Moves regularly through our neighborhood,
Browsing its way from yard to yard.
I saw hoof prints in the snow
And felt compassion for their suffering,
Stranded in the bitter reality
That created the beauty around me.

Pausing to rest and catch my breath,
I looked up and saw the source
Of the hoof prints: A young doe
Stared at me from among the trees,
Her eyes clear, dark, serene.
An adolescent fawn stood behind her.
I returned her stare, stricken by her beauty,
The pure, abstract femininity
Unique to wild creatures, the curves
Of her face, her neck, her joints
So unlike the muscularity
Of the bucks that lingered nearby.

Transfixed, I thought of Green Tara,
The Bodhisattva of compassion,
Often portrayed as a nature goddess,
Surrounded by plants and wild beasts,
Vital, nurturing, patient, playful.
Legend has it that when her
Fellow monks suggested she
Re-incarnate as male to broaden
Her perspective (Or to validate
Their own?) Tara declined, choosing
Always to return as female.
Now, I sensed her presence in the
Artless femininity of an animal’s gaze.

I thought of the shovel and the yards
Of uncleared snow, and felt my muscles
And joints complain once more, but also
I felt their strength persisting—life
Burning against encroaching cold.
Are the aches and pains of age
Signs of an inevitable ending?
Or could they be a call to something
Unknowable, beyond time,
Without form or boundary—
The liquid non-being beneath
An animal’s inhuman stare?

Just as wisdom is born of paradox,
Transience implies continuity.
I watched the doe walk away,
Deliberate, unafraid.
She disappeared into the trees
As I resumed clearing the drive,
Removing her hoof prints along with
The snow that had contained them.

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A Dream is a Physical Thing

Original image by Andrew Mercer via Wikimedia Commons. Modified by W. Stubblefield.

Dreams fly free,
Embracing phantom lovers,
Absent friends, lost
In a rubble of memory,
Inhabiting imagined worlds—
A body forms from thought:
Choirs of humming synapses
Enfleshed and wandering.
A dream is a physical thing.

I dreamed I was on
The soft edge of sleep,
Dark, warm, adrift.
A small, frightened thing
Fluttered onto my lap.
I held an injured bat,
As soft as a kitten,
As ravening as night,
Felled by a broken wing.
A dream is a physical thing.

I held her close, a gift
To protect. Animal
Wisdom guided my hand
Across dark fur, onto
The wing’s trembling leather
To touch her injury.
She bit my hand;
I felt her fear
As I felt her sting.
A dream is a physical thing.

She vanished. I awoke,
Got out of bed,
Showered, dressed, and ate.
Without thinking, I massaged
The back of my hand,
Soothing a forgotten injury,
A non-material wound
In nerve remaining.
A dream is a physical thing.

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Renaissance – A Sonnet

Image by Gerhard G. via Pixabay

Fragments of the past litter my thoughts,
Adolescent complaints from long ago.
Although those petty flames no longer shine,
Their shadows linger in time’s dim glow:

Useless fictions, dreams, desires, lies,
The masks I wore for work, success, protection,
Love’s nakedness—a lonely man’s disguise—
All stripped away, no more than a reflection

In clouded eyes. Unmasked by age, a man
Patient and true remains to close my years,
Mind clear to comprehend, discover, plan,
Create, and sing. Old age brings little to fear:

I will not crawl into darkness, a dying beast;
Let my soul escape, at last released. 

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Contraction

James Cobb, the drummer on
Kind of Blue with the Miles Davis Sextet
Died last year. I bought the album
When I was twelve years old,
Browsing in a record store, new to jazz,
Intimidated by the endless rows of records
Until an older stranger (he must have been all of twenty)
Reached into the confusion without hesitation,
Without searching, and withdrew an album,
A hipster magician conjuring a bright talisman
From the chaos. “You’ll like this,” he said
As he placed it in my hands.

I remember the opening of the first song, “So What,”
How James Cobb’s cymbal crash at the start of Miles’ solo
Seemed to vibrate forever, resonance of creation
Tearing a passage through the walls of childhood
Into a world of mystery, desire, and creativity.

That was a long time ago,
But I remember that day,
Just as I remember how
Learning of his death
Left me feeling
Irrevocably diminished.

I have those feelings often now,
As if my life is steadily contracting.

It contracts with each death
Of a man or woman whose music
Nourished me, with the deaths of poets
Whose words shaped me, of artists who
Taught me to see, of lovers who
Understood needs older than thought.

My life contracts with the absence
Of people I’ve known,
Parents and teachers,
Friends and colleagues lost
To death or neglect.
It contracts with health’s decline,
With legs that can no longer carry me
Through the foothills I once walked.
It contracts with time wasted
In doctors’ waiting rooms.

But as life contracts, it also
Surges forward, like a river
Accelerating between a gorge’s
Narrowing walls, passions
Intensified by age, breathtaking
Rapids, currents of longing
For poems and stories
I have yet to write, for songs
Struggling to escape
My limits as a musician,
For discovery, for experience,
Currents of love for those still
Near me.

All these sustain me,
As if the stranger’s gift had finally
Revealed its deeper purpose.

As I pass through time’s funnel,
The turbulence tears away years of pretense,
Of regret, of self-doubt.
It tears away the false, the valueless,
The twin prisons of culture and desire,
Until what remains flows
Unhindered through a final closure,
Into a cymbal’s incandescent shimmer.

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