Viva Cervantes! Why the Spanish Writer Matters More than Ever

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details from Don Quixote.]

I’m very selective about the writers I like. For those who truly move me, I perform a special ritual in return. I visit their resting place. I can count on one hand the number writers’ graves I have visited (five in total). Cervantes is one of them. Why? Because after 400 years, his prose remains fresh, vital and vibrant. Don Quioxote 2

I mean think about it. What other writer resonates across 400 years like Cervantes???Oh! Right! That English guy…What’s his name? Will? Bill? That’s it! Bill Shakespeare! Now don’t get my wrong, the Bard is great. His plays still dominate theater. His turns of phrase have been adopted into modern English so deeply we don’t even notice them anymore. But, with all apologies, the plays and sonnets seem old. It’s not that the characters and action aren’t fresh, they are. But when I go to a night of Shakespeare, I have to mentally prepare myself for the archaic language, the ponderous soliloquies and so on and so forth. Not so with Cervantes. His pacing is slower than modern tastes like and some of the language is musty. But the ideas, themes and humor strike me as much more modern than those of the Bard.

It’s not just me. Don Quixote’s hold on writers, if anything, has only grown over the years:

Don Quixote would become perhaps the most published work of literature in history. Its influence on writers has been unparalleled. When the Nor­wegian Nobel Institute polled 100 leading authors in 2002 to name the single most important literary work, Don Quixote was a handsome winner; no other book came close.

I can’t really tell you exactly why that is, but below I have a few ideas on why Cervantes and his works continue to cast a spell.

1. His attitude toward fan fiction.
This is a rich vein to mine. First, you could say that Don Quixote itself is simply fan fiction. The character Don Quixote is motivated to go adventuring by reading too many chivalric adventures.

As Quixote is escorted home after his first ill-fated outing, his housekeeper cries at the top of her voice: “Woe is me! Now I know, and it’s true as the death I owe God, that those accursed books of chivalry he’s always reading have driven him crazy.”

And, no doubt, the author was motivated to write the piece by reading too many of the same books. He as much as hints in that in his preface.

And before Cervantes had a chance to complete this second part of his work, a certain Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda beat him to the punch and wrote his own version of part 2. Cervantes was upset, but instead of the modern remedy of litigation or the older method of restoring one’s honor through a duel, he simply decided to mock Avellaneda in introduction to part 2 of the real Don Quixote:

Thou wouldst have me call him ass, fool, and malapert, but I have no such intention; let his offence be his punishment, with his bread let him eat it, and there’s an end of it.

2. Comedy with a deeper purpose.
There’s something about the Quixote that is not comic. Like the best humor ever written, whether it’s Gogol or Monty Python or Leslie Jones, there’s a deeper point. The comic writer lulls you into a false sense of security, then they slip in a slight serious reference and a moment later it’s gone. But it makes you chuckle—and think.

Don Quixote is full of those moments. Don Quixote seems perpetually balanced between comedy and tragedy. At any given moment you don’t know which way it will head next. There’s no relief. He keeps you on a knife edge between tears and laughter.

There’s deep poignancy in the story: Don Quixote is, after all, insane. Right? But Cervantes takes a light tone with it, so it becomes comedic. Or does it? He meets others who decide to play along, not least his servant, Sancho. But they often seem to be doing so out of pity more than anything else. It becomes almost a general revolt against mundane reality. But there’s great humor too: from simple gags like fart jokes and ribald tales to more complex allegories like tilting at windmills. It’s an incredibly taut, controlled narrative in its way.

3. A master of stories and the novel.
It’s not easy to master the novel. And it’s even harder to master the short story. It’s damn near impossible to master both. But damn him, this guy did it.

You can look at Don Quixote, a very long novel, and he pulls it off. You can look at his Exemplary Tales, one of which I’ve discussed here, and he pulls that off as well. In fact, similar to medieval storytelling, Don Quixote can be seen as a string of shorter stories strung together in a larger narrative. It’s as if he’s writing stories within the longer narrative structure of a novel. And somehow, he makes it all work. Short stories, long novels, in prose Cervantes did it all.

4. The man who became myth.
I warned you about spoilers, so here it is. At the end of the novel, Don Quixote gives up chivalry, admits his madness, renounces knight errantry and dies. I’ll let you unpack what Cervantes meant by that on your own. But for me, it’s clear. Give up your dreams, your madness and you mine as well die. It’s a lovely way to end the book. [There’s that tragedy again.]

And it’s not so different from the life of the man, Cervantes. He lived life to the fullest. Was a soldier, a prisoner, a slave in Algiers, and an accountant. He did time in prison for fraud. He was always with the people, not in an academic or cloistered environment. He probably lived and heard more stories than almost any man. He wrote until the very end and when he ceased to write, to dream, just like his greatest creation, he passed away.

Over time he’s been memorialized by a literary prize, uncounted books, stories and poems. My favorite of these is by another master of the Spanish tongue, Borges. I quote it here because it’s so outstanding.

Defeated by reality, by Spain, Don Quixote died in his native village around 1614. He was survived only briefly by Miguel de Cervantes.

For both of them, for the dreamer and the dreamed, the tissue of that whole plot consisted in the contraposition of two worlds: the unreal world of the books of chivalry and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.

Little did they suspect that the years would end by wearing away the disharmony. Little did they suspect that La Mancha and Montiel and the knight’s frail figure would be, for the future, no less poetic than Sinbad’s haunts or Ariosto’s vast geographies.

For myth is at the beginning of literature, and also at its end.

The myth of Cervantes has only begun and will continue for a very long time. Viva Cervantes!

See you next time,

Darius

Off for Some Vacation

I hate to write and run again, but alas, I must.

It’s almost July 4 over here and I’m far, far behind in procuring the necessary fireworks for our nation’s annual festivities as mandated by several county ordinances. I also have to go to an out-of-state wedding. So, you can imagine the state I’m in. [Forgive my pun.]Sobotka Mag Cover_Issue 4

The good thing is that Sobotka Magazine (see cover nearby) is about to launch a new issue with my story “Barabanhik” in it. It will be the second time seeing my name in print and the first time in a literary magazine. It’s also the first of my stories set in Russia. A place, and a theme, I’m sure to return to. If I may paraphrase Sobotka, some places stick in your bones. Russia is one of them.

Other than that, I’m noticing it’s taking longer for editors to get back to me on my stories…Which may be a sign of the growing quality of the pieces or of summer doldrums in editorial offices across the country. I’ll let you decide which.

Most of all, I’ve been lax on sticking to my writing schedule. Hopefully, when things settle down a bit in this thing called life, I’ll get right back to it. There are a couple of short stories (or more correctly, characters in those stories) which are being particularly impatient right now (“Pick me! Pick me!). I’ve got to sit down in front of the screen and start banging those out, sentence by sentence.

Overall, it’s an exciting time to be hanging around this old Earth and writing a bit. I can’t wait to get back to the café, order a good brew and start tapping the keyboard again. It’s just around the corner…I can almost smell that first cup.

Darius

Moving House—and Books

Hey everybody, just checking in. Moving house this weekend. As part of that, I’m taking 10 boxes of books with me. If fact, when I move, it feels like it’s mostly books. Anyway, not much time to talk/write today, but wanted to let you know I’m still out there writing and creating. Moving house

So, here’s a quick update on the writing. Getting admissions and rejections back from publishers and will send my play to the proofer soon. Next weekend, I plan to get back to writing drafts in earnest. Looking forward to that. It’s time to get back into the mix and to start “getting black on white” again. Now that this house-moving thing  is about over, it’s high time I get back to it.

More soon,

Darius

Gone to Denver

By the time you read this, I will be safely away. Away from work, from writing, from the big city. maroonlakecolorado2

I imagine right about now I should be out in Colorado, the Denver area, to be somewhat precise. I’m probably on some hike, coming around a ridge and looking out on a scene just like that one right here. And maybe there’s a bald eagle out in the distance or an elk or a mountain goat looking right back at me, as if to say, “What’s up?”

I’ll probably be breathing fresh air with a hit of pine resin in it, or sage brush if I’m out on some plateau. I probably won’t be hearing anything, nothing. Except maybe the wind whipping through the pines, or the cry of an eagle or the rush of a mountain stream tumbling down or hell just nothing…nothing at all, just the silence of God’s great universe.

And everything will be alright. Yep, that’s what I’m up to RIGHT THIS MINUTE.

What are you guys doing?

See you next time,

Darius

Free Form

Need to feed the blog beast, need to feed the blog beast… Need to feed…the…

I’ve had a lot of good ideas for blog posts lately, stuff about Cervantes, aikido, Poe… But I’m not motivated to write any of them today. Feeling bleh and blah. And the rain outside, in about its 40th day, isn’t helping. Free Form

So…What to write? What to say? Nothing much. So, no theme or topic comes to mind. Might I just free-form? Ron Burgundy style? No. Instead, I will tell you where my writing is at. How about that? Here it is, broken down piece-by-piece.

Sludge Ship Chronicles
Got this beast done. Plays…What a strange medium! Take the strict plotting from short stories, the length and scope of a novella and the oral elements of poetry—Mash them all together and there you have it: a play. I have to say my wonder at this medium has only grown after writing one.

Anyhow, starting to submit this to local playhouses and looking for festivals or other venues to submit too as well. This is a very chancy, risky business, but I’ll let you know where it all nets out. Wish me luck.

Pacha-Mama
Still submitting this piece. Still believe in it. Still think it’s good. Lots of bites, but no editor has really chomped down on it yet, so that I can reel them in. Time to cast again.

Breakpoint
This science-fiction story is still with consideration with a magazine, still waiting to hear.

So You Found Me
Decided on a market for this flash piece, will be submitting it soon.

…For My Next Trick
Have a good grip on a new short story, even did some good pre-writing on it. I’m fired up to write it, but have to take vacation first. Hope to get to this in the middle of June and bang it out. Its bones are good, now I just have to put some flesh on it.


That’s it. Another quick, dirty blog post. Putting the writing and submitting first. Which is important to me. I hope to be back in a couple of weeks with another post.

See you then,

Darius

Write On

Hey Guys, taking a break from the blog this week, so that I can just edit, edit and edit some more. I have a big project (the play) I want to wrap up and that HAS GOT TO BE THE TOP PRIORITY.

I will be back in a couple of weeks with a more substantive post.

Until Then,

Darius


[UPDATE MAY 7]:

Just to give a little update: I used my writing time wisely yesterday. I wrapped up the third draft of my play. I consider it essentially done (for now).  And I will get it proofread by someone else and then start marketing it.

So, time well spent not-blogging and actually writing some real fiction. A worthy cause.

See you again soon….Darius

Writing Update—An Acceptance

Well…Well…Well… Prince_SelfTitled

Here we are two weeks later and I feel like I could be blogging again about the passing of another music legend. Sigh. Big Sigh. Losing Prince sucks. Just as much as losing Merle Haggard or David Bowie…But I don’t want to make this blog too much of a downer. And there are others who are bigger fans and far better placed to do a proper homage to the Purple One. And also, these guys wrote songs about “this thing called life.” And we, the living, have to continue, must continue…To live, to love and to write—great music or great stories as suits our personalities. 

So, reflecting on that, and more importantly, acting on it…Here’s a little good news: one of my stories was accepted by a magazine. That’s right, “Barabanchik” has found a home. I don’t want to get into the details, but suffice to say, the editors wrote back and are excited about including it in their next issue. I will share more as things solidify, but I wanted  to get this good news out there. Barabanchik means “drummer” or “little drummer” in Russian and it’s perfect name for the character in the story. I’m glad he’ll finally walk out of Kazansky Station and onto the pages of a magazine. Can’t wait to see him there.

And while we’re at it, here’s an update on other stuff I’m working on:

Pacha-Mama
This long short story/novelette came darn, darn close to being published by a magazine. It made it into the final round of consideration, but in the end it didn’t make the cut. This weekend, I’m going to proof it one more time and send it off to magazines again. I love the Pacha-Mama character as much as I love Barabanchik. 

The Sludge Ship Chronicles
This play…Man, it’s so close to being done. I have to sit down with a hard copy of it again this weekend, mark it up. Then, input the changes and it should be essentially done. All that will remain is a good proofreading and marketing the piece.

In fact, I have decided upon what I’ll call the “apex market” for the piece: the most selective market out there that I still think it’s got a shot at. It’s a local theater known for putting on eclectic, modern plays. And they accept submissions from local playwrights, which is rare. But it won’t be easy. I have a feeling they are very, very selective. A perfect apex market to start with and see what happens.

So You Found Me
Was waiting in the airport one day and this idea just hit me. Or should I say an idea that had hit me a long time ago finally and suddenly coalesced, popping out of my subconscious into my conscious. So, I wrote it out right there on my officially-licensed work computer. Smuggled the piece out later and have been polishing it since. It’s a short-short piece, a piece of flash fiction at under 1,000 words. Never written anything that short before.

Will be editing this further and see what I want to do with it.


A Little on Prince
Didn’t think I was going to completely short change you, did you? This is a speech Prince gave upon being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He talks about two of the most important things for artists: freedom and friendship. I especially love these lines:

Without real spiritual mentoring, too much freedom can lead to the soul’s decay. And a word to the young artists … a real friend or mentor is not on your table. A real friend and mentor cares for your soul as much as they do the other one.

But really, you should check out his music. As much of it as you can.

Until Next Time,

Darius

One More City–with Merle Haggard

So, you probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a huge country music fan. Huge. Not the new stuff, but the classic country. From around the 30s to mid-70s (from about Jimmie Rodgers to Waylon Jennings). The modern stuff doesn’t really do it for me. BigCityMerleHaggard

As such, I was truly bummed this week to learn Merle Haggard had passed away. Many of you, especially those  of you outside the U.S., might not have heard of him. Well, let me cure you of that with a look at three songs from one of America’s greatest singer-songwriters. All written and performed by Haggard.

I’m including just the lyrics because they’re lyric-driven songs and I love the simple stories they tell.


1. Big City

Always loved this one. It’s a simple story really, about a guy who has had enough.

I’m tired of this dirty old city
And tired of too much work
And never enough play
And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks
Think I’ll walk off my steady job today.

So, he takes off running way out into the middle of nothing.

Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
And give me all I’ve got coming to me.

And Merle, being Merle, couldn’t help but pack a little political edge into the song.

And keep your retirement and your
So called Social Security
Big city turn me loose and set me free.

I love that “so-called Social Security.” I always feel the guy who ran was better for it, happier and just plain freer. And for the record, I have blasted this song while driving my truck through the middle of Montana. Near a place called Grass Range. Literally.

2. Here in Frisco

Haggard famously dissed the City by the Bay in one of his most famous songs, “The Okie from Muskogee.” Fair enough. But what a lot of people don’t know is that he wrote one of the most beautiful songs ever written about the city. It’s kind of a love song for the city and whenever I’m there, I can hear wisps and catches of it playing in my mind.

It’s four a.m. in New York City three a.m. in Dallas
The night is still early here in Frisco.

One a.m. is pretty early for San Fran. I’ve seen it “swinging” at 3 a.m. and even after that (especially, on St. Patrick’s Day).

They say it’s raining in Chicago and it’s cold and clear in Denver
Been windy all night long here in Frisco
Trolley cars are clinging, the big Bay Town’s swinging
And I’m still all alone here in Frisco.

That nails it for me. I just feel myself transported back there walking through the streets, hearing the trolleys clanging, the wind blowing. It’s a great little tribute to the city.

This is a deep track on his Keep Movin’ On album, but very worth tracking down.

3. Silver Wings

Another favorite. It starts out well enough.

Silver wings,
Shining in the sunlight,
Roaring engines,
Headed somewhere in flight.

But this is a country song, so things head south fast.

They’re taking you away
Leaving me lonely
Silver wings
Slowly fading out of sight.

You can tell where this is headed: Nowhere good.

Don’t leave me I cried
Don’t take that airplane ride
But you locked me out of your mind
Left me standing here behind.

All that’s left is that sad, sad refrain.

Silver wings
Slowly fading out of sight.
Slowly fading out of sight.

This is another deep track from the A Portrait of Merle Haggard album.


So what does this all mean? First, sad to see him go. Second, I learned from him that you can tell a great story using a few, simple words. It doesn’t require complexity or big words. You can convey a whole mood and idea very, very simply. And tersely.

But perhaps the biggest thing I admire about him is how he brought country music into the modern era. All those things he sang about above are modern things: big cities, San Francisco, jet airplanes. Before him, country music singers sang about honky tonks, white lightning and trains. He wrote about those things too, but he also brought in new things, keeping the old sounds and phrasing. Every great art form contains within it tradition and innovation. If tradition become the dominating feature, that art form stagnates and dies. If only innovation dominates, the good things about that tradition can be forgotten and the whole art form can be lost. The key seems to be finding a balance between tradition and innovation to create something new within an existing tradition. That’s when really great artistic moments can happen.

And Merle Haggard will always be a fine example of that.

Rest in Peace, Merle. And Thanks,

Darius.


If you want to learn more, Wikipedia has a great article on Merle and you can pick up one of his greatest hit albums to start with and then dip into his actual albums if you’re hungry for more. I hope you will be.

See you next time,

DJ

Diego and the Peaches

So, done a lot of thinking lately. And I think that I may have been doing this blog “wrong.”

Not that anyone can blog the “wrong” way. But I’m a story teller, and stories have been a bit sparse on this blog. And I want to change that. Now, thePeaches-HD-Wallpapers2se won’t be fiction stories (as you probably know: once you publish a story on your blog, it’s considered “published” and most magazines/publishers will no longer consider it). Instead, these will just be plain stories. Nothing less, nothing more. They’ll be scenes from my life, but also illustrate things I’ve been thinking about. So, here’s a short one for today. About Diego and his peaches.

Diego Rivera, the painter, left his native Mexico and headed to Europe to learn from some of the European masters. Despite his deep love for pre-Columbian Mexican art, he had become enthralled by European art and, I think, the tradition of European art. During this phase of his career, he mostly rejected these Mexican influences and turned to cubism, the European artistic rage of the day. Picasso had marked him out as one of the leading future painters. Money was coming in, his exhibitions were gaining more interest. And then one morning, he ran into a cart of peaches on the street.

Suddenly, my whole being was filled with this commonplace object. I stood there transfixed, my eyes absorbing every detail. With unbelievable force, the texture, the forms, and colors of the peaches seemed to reach out toward me. I rushed back to my studio…

But things didn’t go easy. Not at all.

Nevertheless, the beginning proved painful and tedious. In the process of tearing myself away from cubism, I met with repeated failures. But I did not give up.

What to do, indeed, but forge ahead? And forge ahead stubbornly, he did. In the most difficult times, one theme kept coming back to him.

During the worst hours, I would find comfort in the precept of my old Mexican tutor, [Jose] Posada, to paint what I knew and felt. And I realized that what I knew best and felt most was my own country, Mexico.

That almost knocked me off my chair when I read it: “paint what I knew and felt.” It’s the same thing in writing. You’ve probably heard that old cliché: “Write what you know.” But I think Diego added a nice twist to it as if he’s saying: “Write what you know and love.” That rings so true. It’s not enough to just write what you know, you have to love it too. Bring together the extra-rational enthusiasm of love and the intellectual insight of knowledge. Diego says that this is what gets an artist to the peak of creativity, beyond “mere craftsmanship” and technical expertise. How true.

It’s a good reminder as I wrap up one manuscript and mentally prepare for the next. When it’s time to select the next piece to work on, I’ll keep my mind open so I can pick a work which speaks to my heart and my mind. Something I “know and love.” I suggest you seek out the same things, even if you can devote a limited amount of time to them. It’s sure to put a smile on your face.

Until next time,

Darius

[PS: This is a retelling of an incident from Diego Rivera’s autobiography. Though the book is full of self-mythologizing, I highly recommend it.]

Title Reveal: The Sludge Ship Chronicles

It’s time to come clean, as it were. I’ve been writing and working whenever I can, as you all know. That’s resulted in the first draft of a play, and now it’s time to do the title reveal  as I steadily edit, condense and refine the second draft. Sludge Boat

The play’s working title is “The Sludge Ship Chronicles.” What, you’re asking, is a sludge ship? Well, it’s a ship that carries sludge, obviously. In the bad, old days, empty sludge ships filled their cargo holds with raw human waste from sewers. Then, they went far out to sea where they simply dumped their cargo. They returned to port and loaded up again. Apparently, this is no longer done although sludge ships do still exist (in New York City, for example), but now simply transport sludge between processing centers, without releasing the raw stuff into the environment. Something to think about next time you flush the toilet.

So, why did I decide to write a whole play about a sludge ship? Well, I’m merely using it (it’s true!) as a metaphor for something else. And as a plot device. As to what that “something else” is, I’ll hold off on getting into the details for now.

A few more notes on the play. It’s set in a medieval kingdom with an uncanny resemblance to Britain. So, the sludge ship is not like the one in the photo, but of the old sailing type. If it all sounds a bit hammy, it’s meant to be. It’s a comedy/satire. I could go into the plot, the characters and all that now—but I feel that’s getting a bit ahead of myself. I prefer to save that until after a final draft is done, or maybe even later.

The one big concern I have for the play is marketing it. I’ve tried to not worry about this and I don’t overly worry about marketing my stuff anymore. But every writer wants to see their stuff get out there. And I simply don’t have any experience marketing a play. So my plan is to find a local playhouses or festival that is willing to accept plays from new playwrights. I’ve just begun this process. M—, my friend, has put me in touch with his brother who has some experience in such things and I’m hoping to get some tips from him. But I know it will be very different from submitting short stories and novellas like I’ve done in the past. People simply have to invest more in a play (making sets, hiring actors, selling tickets), so the barrier to entry is higher. I have a lurking suspicion that the writing of the play will be the easiest part of it. If anyone out there has any experience with or tips about marketing plays, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Alright, that’s all for now. I will let you know when I arrive at a manuscript I feel is ready to submit. All for now. I’ll see you next time.

Until then,

Darius