A Crazy Week—In Real Life

Hey Guys,

I was intending to write a good, substantive post this week, but life has conspired to intervene. Work is crazy, life is hectic…But writing is good, that part…is pretty darn good.

Crazy

So, anyway, everything is pretty unsettled. So instead of writing a proper post when—frankly—I don’t feel like it, I’m going to make this an ultra-short post.

One short note: I am working on revising a short story at an editor’s request, so that is a bit of good news. But of course, that also eats into blog time. Anyway, more on that next time and more on other writing insights.

Alright, gotta run. See you next time,

Darius

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The Writer in the Next Cubicle

I don’t know who you are, or where you’re from, but I know why you come here. Or at least, I think I know why you come here…

Cube Life

You’re probably another writer out there somewhere, maybe stuck in some situation you don’t want to be stuck in. Maybe you work in a bookstore and you’re dreaming of actually having something you write make it onto the shelves someday. Maybe you’re writing for a small website or a PR firm—but you wish you could put your skills to better use. Maybe you’re a teacher or a nurse and you’re thinking about writing on those precious days off. Maybe you’re between jobs and you’re hanging out at a diner journaling and thinking of starting to write some stories. Maybe it’s something else. I get it. So, today’s post, just maybe, will give you a little hope and a pocketful of courage to start writing more seriously—or to keep going. I certainly hope so.

So, here’s the thing you may not know about me: like many of you, I have a day job. That’s right. A regular 40-hours-a-week (up to 50-hours-a-week) gig that pays the bills. I work in an office with a bunch of other people who are generally quiet nice. I wake up, commute in, fire up the PC and get to work, grab lunch, work some more and then head home. And I do it five days a week, Monday through Friday, just like any other working Schlub.

But I also have a little extra thing going. I write fiction on the weekends. And I’ve had some moderate success. I have had a few stories published here and there. And I keep writing, faithfully, every weekend. Creating more words and more stories. I can’t imagine giving it up now.

So, I wrote this post just because I want you to know I’m out there somewhere. That’s all. I’m out there. I might be in an office half way around the world from you. I might be in a nearby town or down the block from where you work. Or I might even be that guy just over the cubicle wall. That kind of quiet, but funny co-worker. (I hope!) But I write and it keeps me going and happy and undaunted no matter what the working world—or life—throws at me. And if I can do it, maybe you can too.

And not only that—you can do it right now, today, wherever you are or whatever situation you find yourself in. You, too, can write fiction. You don’t have to go to some school, or enroll in some workshop, or live in Brooklyn, or have the right connections, or writer buddies, or move to Bali. You don’t even have to quit your day job, if you don’t want to. If you have a little paper and a pen (or a computer and some electricity) you can go home and write tonight. (Or at least this weekend, like I do.) And as long as you have a good idea, put in the work, and aren’t too worried about the outcome—you can pound out a first draft. And then a second and a third and…someday finish your story.

I’m not saying it will be good, or that it will be published, or make money—but sitting down and staring at the blank page is the first step in writing any story. Getting it on the page, capturing it from the ether—minute after minute, hour after hour. It’s not easy, it never was. But don’t let those imaginary barriers surrounding you—often times ones you have created yourself—make you put off something indefinitely which you could be doing right now. Today. 

Resolve to write, sit down and do it. As easy and hard as that is, it’s the only solution.

Best of Luck to You,

Darius


Before I go, I also wanted to add a little something about the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin. But I think there are others elsewhere who have done a far more admirable job than I could have. I’m listing them below, but before I go let me just offer this quote from her to get you even more fired up on writing:

“…we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope.”

Wow. I love that. Rest in peace, Ursula.

Here are some really great pieces about her:

1. A remembrance by Jo Walton from Tor.com.

2. A speech of hers from 2014.

3. Writing tips from her via the inimitable Chuck Wendig.

Another Writing Tweak: The Refresher

Like most fiction writers these days, I also have a day job. You know, the one you where you go to a central location for 40+ hours a week? But when I’m able to break for lunch or get in early before the boss, my thoughts turn to my trusty side hustle: writing fiction. Well, there’s one little tweak (besides listening to music) I adopted last year for my fiction-writing sessions. I’m going to call it “The Refresher.”

LEAD Processor

Since I have a day job, I usually have about a week between my writing sessions (which I do every Sunday). With life intervening in the mean time, I’m liable to forget important plot details, nuances of setting or who said what when. Sometimes, I even forget where the story was at ENTIRELY. ENTIRELY! Which is not surprising when you have lots of other things on your mind. I regularly found myself having to dive back into a piece, remind myself where the plot was at and then move forward. It was like having to warm back up and then dive into the writing from scratch. It was a cold start every time.

So, I knew I had to remedy this situation. Lately, I’ve taken to opening and re-reading the last chapter (or section or paragraph) of my work to see where I’m at on SATURDAY night (or day). That way, I know where I left off when I sit down to write on SUNDAY…On those Saturday nights, I start ruminating on where I’m headed next and what needs to happen next and, more importantly, what has to happen to close off the next chapter or section. Then, I put away the manuscript and forget about it. I let it sink back into the subconscious without fretting about the characters or where they are at or where they will happen. I meet even have a glass of wine or watch a movie. I trust my subconscious to assist with any smoothing out of plot or character that needs to happen the next day.

That way, when I grab that nice, hot cup of Joe the next afternoon and sit down to write, I have a good idea of where the action is and again, most importantly, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. It’s what I call “The Refresher.”

It’s just another little tweak, another little tool, I have added to my writing belt recently. And, so far, it’s passing the only true test of all new writing tools: it’s keep me writing and keeping my word count heading in the right direction (up).

I hope you other Day-Job Writers out there find this little tip useful. If you have any tips or tools you use to become more productive, I’d love to hear about them in the Comments section!

Until next time.

Keep reading, Keep writing,

Darius

Where My Writing Is Headed in 2018

Well, here we are. The great summing-up is done, and now, for the plan-ahead.

new-year-2018-eve-greeting

To review: Last time, we looked back at my writing in 2017. And despite not submitting works as much as I wanted to, overall, I was pretty satisfied with where my writing is at. Why? Because I’ve remained productive this year. I’ve kept putting words on paper. In fact, I cranked out about 36,300 words of prose. That’s about 7 short stories worth (if you use 5,000 words as the yardstick for a short story). So, I’m pretty proud about that…But that’s so 2017. What about the coming year?


Well, the following are some things I would like to achieve in my writing in 2018. Ranked in their order of importance:

1. Write more in 2018 (as measured by word counts).
As I said, I wrote about 36,000 words in 2017. I will have roughly the same amount of time to write in 2018. But I want to be aspirational about things…So…How about this goal: Write 40,000 words of fiction in 2018.

2. Work harder to get stories accepted.
If I was disappointed in one aspect of my fiction writing in 2017, it was something which had nothing to do with writing fiction: submitting stories. But as this is a key part of being a writer, I need to do a bit better here.

But as I thought about it, I was struggling with how to quantify this. After all, I have little control over whether editors accept my story. But I do control how often I send out my stories. So, adapting an idea from Aeryn Rudel (who has a great blog all you aspiring SFF writers should read), I will submit a story once every two weeks. I will continue to do so until a story is accepted or it reaches 20 rejections.

I would set a goal of once per week, but I know I’m going to be quite busy this year anyway. And once every two weeks would be a vast improvement.

I already have three pieces that are done, proofed and ready for submission. So, it’s just requires grabbing them and sending them along to the right markets. Finding those right markets is where all the work will reside. 

3. Stretch goal: Get my play in production.
One of those pieces is a complete play. It will be one of those pieces I will be sending out every couple of weeks. Now, I know that a play is harder to shop around than a story. And that its submission package is usually more involved (requires a synopsis, only samples of a manuscript, a Bio, etc.) than a story. So, I’m naming this my stretch (extra tough) goal. In other words, I will submit my play to theatres accepting manuscripts throughout the year.

4. Keep blogging.
Lastly, I will  keep blogging. At the same time, I don’t want to make this overly onerous. I want to be able to share a thought, an insight on writing, or some progress I’ve made. But I don’t want the blog to distract from, or worse yet, eat up time that should be devoted to fiction writing. I definitely want to keep my steely determination in the Distraction Wars and not let the Internet or smart phones or idle conversations with strangers keep me from my main mission: writing fiction. And so,

I will post at least 100 words to my blog every two weeks.


That’s it! My goals—my writing resolutions—if you will, for 2018. Simple, easy to understand and easy to measure.

Will I be able to meet my own goals? Or will time management or distraction be my undoing? Will I have self-discipline or will I cave in and go for a walk or listen to a Podcast instead of doing what I really want to do—write?

At this point, it’s too early to tell. You will just have to come along with me on this little journey and see where we net out on Dec. 31, 2018.

Wish me luck! And hope to see you there!

Happy New Year!

,Darius

A Look Back at My Year in Writing—2017

Wow. Another year is here and almost gone. I can’t believe it. I think, overall, it was a good year for my writing…But you always wish you could do more, write more, get a few more words down, get a few more stories accepted. old_school_reporter

So, how to sum up a year of writing fiction? It’s harder than you think. Here’s how I would like to divide this up: into the Hard Stuff and Soft Stuff. The Hard Stuff is easily quantifiable: stories accepted/rejected, word counts, that sort of thing. The Soft Stuff is more qualitative, it’s about style and technique, not stuff  you can easily quantify. Ready? Here we go!

One Story Accepted
Way back on January 1, I had a story published on Between Worlds Magazine. It’s called “So You Found Me.” It was the first flash fiction piece of   mine that was ever published and I was very happy with the way it came out. Check it out if you get a minute.

As for my others stories, will they were sent out, but they haven’t been accepted—yet. These are three other stories, two of which I think have really good chances of getting published. But before I move on, in the interest of normalizing literary rejection, let’s look at the stats for my stories in 2017 so far. Let’s break this down in all its stark brutality:

Number of times stories sent to magazines: 16

Stories rejected: 15

Answers pending: 1

Acceptance percentage: 0%

Ouch! I’m not letting that get me down though. Why? Partially because you have to soldier on through rejection. That’s what writers do. But also because these statistics don’t tell the whole truth.

First, it’s a woefully low statistical sample, which can be misleading. Let’s say many of these magazine have acceptance rates of around 5%. Some are higher, some lower. Now, think about that. It means given they all had a 5% acceptance rate, for every story they accept, they’re rejecting 20 (If my math is right. Is it? I’m horrible at math!). So you have about a 1/20 chance of getting your story accepted. Assuming this hypothetical magazine accepts all worthy stories equally, you would have to send a story 20 times before getting accepted. As it is, I didn’t even match that 20 number, sending my stories out just 16 times. In fact, many established writers I have talked to will send a story out between 20-25 times before trunking (abandoning and archiving) it. So, it’s partially my own fault, because I didn’t send out my stories enough.

Also, my submission spree doesn’t take into account what kind of rejections I received. Some of these were not blanket “form” rejections. They were rejections saying that my story got close to getting accepted in a couple of instances. In another instance a literary magazine rejected one of the stories, but asked for me to send future stories their way. (The first time that has happened with a literary magazine). So, what at first looks pretty abysmal, wasn’t that bad and in fact, gives me hope that these stories will finally find a home.

Word Counts—Keeping It Up
Best of all, I kept the word counts up. This was not an easy year to do this. It has been filled with distractions. But I have been able to remain focused. I have some reasons for this, which I will get into below—but I want to list one here. I think I have been able to keep my schedule and writing ritual consistent. I have minimized distractions from blogging and submitting work and sat down and focused on producing words. That is very important.

I will not get into specific words counts in this post, but bring that up in the next post.

Blog Writing
Blogging can seem like a chore—and it often is! But I kept it up this year: I blogged once every two weeks. Even if it was to say: “I’ll see you guys next time.”

I also changed the name of the blog from “A Writer Begins” to “Inside the Writer’s Mind” on its fifth (!) anniversary. And good news: that posting consistency is paying off. Blog readership is way up this year. The number of visitors is more than double last year and almost triple last year’s total. So, that’s sweet! Thanks for checking in, everyone.

And now for the Soft Stuff…

Writing the Story That Burns in Your Belly
I have written about this one a lot here. Story selection. How do you know which story to write? Which piece of all those in your pre-writing pile to pick out and actually get down on paper? It’s tough, but I think I’m figuring it out.

As I wrote, it’s that story that is “burning in your belly.” The one with the characters/scenes you can’t stop thinking about or embellishing with little details. That’s what you want to write. I’ve known this for some time now, but I haven’t always practiced it. That ended this year in March. When I said “Screw it!,” sat down and started writing the story(ies) that were on the top of my pre-writing pile. I finally started practicing what I preach and I think it’s helping me crank my word counts higher.

Writing with Music
Another thing that is helping the word counts, I think, is the decision to bring back my music. I go to cafes to write usually and they have their own music which is fine. And they usually also have somewhat loud patrons, which can be distracting. So, I went back to something I used to do a long, long time ago: writing with my music on.

When I go write on the weekends now, I bring headphones and plug in to listen to my music. It blocks out any conversations (most importantly), but it also lets me change my mental mood a bit as I pick a faster or slower or happier or darker music depending on the scene I’m putting down on the page. And again—if word count is any indication—this has helped my writing.

I love little tweaks like this that can up your writing game. 

Go to a Con?
This is one thing I said I would do last year that I didn’t do. Oh well. I would like to get to a good writing Con in 2018, but we will have to see. There are so many things to do and it’s always hard to fit this one in.

Overall
Overall, I will call 2017 a great year for stick-to-it-ness in my fiction writing. Did I get any stories accepted? Yeah, just one short piece. But I kept writing and that’s the most important thing. The standard by which all other successes have to be judged because it’s the one thing I can control and that comes down to me. If a story gets accepted or rejected, if people come to the blog or not—I have no control over. So, I’m glad the tweaks I made seem to have worked and the word counts are heading in the right direction. Now, I just have to hone in on editing and submitting more in 2018.

But that’s a post for next time.

Was the Russian Revolution a Break with the Past…Or a Continuation of It?

You can walk through Red Square, down all the grand avenues of Moscow, through its empty, gray backstreets and you will never find it. You can do the same in St. Petersburg: walk down Nevsky Prospect, past Kazan Cathedral all the way to the Winter Palace. Or follow the winding paths Raskolnikov took through the back streets, but you won’t find it there either. You can go to Nizhny Novgorod or Ulyanovsk or Samara or Volgograd or further south and east and do the same thing: walk down the main avenues, through the grandest squares or the quietest backstreets and you won’t find it there either…

Russ Peasant

So, what is it? It is a memorial to the Russian soldiers of World War I. You can find plenty of monuments to Russia’s involvement in World War II, of course. And you will find a number of monuments to plenty other wars Russia got involved in: the Napoleonic wars are easy to find, and other smaller conflicts have monuments here and there. But despite the size of World War I and the sacrifice of the average Russian solider (over two million of them died), you’ll find little to suggest it ever happened. Sometimes, walking around Russia—which usually does a good job of commemorating history—it feels as if it never happened.

But that’s not exactly true, is it? And I’m not being quite straightforward either. Because one day, I did find a monument to the Russian soldiers of World War I. On a gray, wet, cold day I came across a small, well-kept monument tucked away on a small side street. It was a little smaller than the height of a man and it was in memory of the high sacrifice so many of those men made. I was struck that it was the first time I had EVER seen a monument, of any size, to the Russian soldiers of World War I. I had a solemn moment next to the monument and was on my way.

So, why was this war almost forgotten there? How did it happen? Well, it’s easy. The Russian Revolution. The Great War was viewed as a struggle between capitalistic powers by the victors of the Russian Revolutions, the Bolsheviks. As such, it was hardly worth commemorating or celebrating. And so, a hundred years after Russian famously “left the war,” there is hardly any trace of the conflict left. Which leads me to this week’s big question…

Was the Revolution a Break with the Past or a Continuation of It?
I have come to believe that the Russian Revolution was a continuation of older patterns in Russian culture and history…It was not, and should not, be viewed as a millennial disruption with the past. Here’s why I think this way:

Geography
Russia is vast, but mostly defenseless. OK, that’s a gross oversimplification. But think about it: It’s mostly a vast open plain or forest. There are not natural barriers to an invasion on pretty much any side, except the north. Sure, there are the Urals, but they’re pretty small. They certainly were not obstacles to the Mongols who invaded on horseback. Of course, there is the one Killer natural obstacle: the winters. And yes, General January and General February have done amazing jobs of stopping invading armies in their tracks. But overall Russia is a vast, thinly-populated resource-heavy prize waiting to be taken. And the Russians themselves are keenly aware of this. It’s written into their history.

And one more thing on geography which many of America’s Founding Fathers noted in The Federalist Papers: democracy seemed to develop and flourish first in islands or isolated environments. That usually meant Britain or Venice in their thinking. But there are other examples like Switzerland that come to mind. This is not a rock solid theory, but if you don’t think this applies today, look at a map of East Asia and consider what kind of political system the islands have (Japan, Philippines, Taiwan, and we’ll throw in South Korea) and what kind of political system mainland nations have (China, Vietnam, North Korea, etc.). Coincidence or the influence of geography? I’ll let you decide.

History—In Three Easy Pieces
So, building on geography…What sort of history did Russia have as a result? Was it calm and bloodless? Or a bit more turbulent? I think you know. But let’s explore some of the big themes.

1. Collapse I—From Without: The Mongol Invasion
It’s hard to overemphasize the effect of the Mongol Invasion on the Russian psyche to this day. I remember seeing children’s cartoons (cartoons!) which replayed (less violently) the story of the debacle of the Mongol invasion of Russia. It went something like this: a Russian village is quietly minding its own business when the Mongols appear on the horizon, blotting out the sun with their arrows. They swoop in and devastate the land and almost nothing is left. And this was for the kids!

So much for the historical accuracy of cartoons. But the Mongol invasion was astonishingly successful AND long-lived. (By the way, they invaded Russia in the WINTER, so note to future would-be conquerors!). They ruled the heartland of Russia for about 200 years, leaving a major impact on many institutions—for bad and good. They kept hold of various parts of Russia for some time: Catherine the Great finally swept away the last of the legacy Mongol states in the late 1700s!

The bottom line: Russia would make it a priority from the 1200s on that it would always be prepared for a major foreign invasion at any time—and would have an army to make good on it.

2. Collapse II—From Within: The Time of Troubles
Problem is…It’s not always “them foreigners” who bring down a country. Sometimes, it’s the citizens themselves. (Imagine that!) And sometimes they find foreigners to help them.

In the early 1600s Russia was exhausted after wars and unrest unleashed at the end  of Ivan the Terrible’s reign. A famine and other catastrophes followed, further weakening the state and the economy. Soon, the entire country descended into full-blown anarchy and chaos: the Time of Troubles. It was a turn of events that its neighbors—especially Poland—could not pass up, and they duly invaded. Usurpers and con artists took over the position of tsar. Eventually, a coalition of Russian citizens rose up, united and kicked out the invaders and placed the first of the Romanovs on the throne.

But again, the psychic damage was done. Few countries have experienced full-blown anarchy on such a scale. This too, was something that must NEVER be repeated. But the threat had come (mostly) from within. So, perhaps the citizens should be watched just as vigilantly as the foreigners…

3. A Messianic Nation
And historically, there’s one more thing. As many have noted, for a very long time, Russia has thought of itself as a special nation, a place apart. Ivan the Terrible has been credited with introducing or emphasizing this concept. It was Ivan who named himself tsar (The Russian word for Caesar) to emphasize the country’s link to the Byzantine empire. Accordingly, Russia at times viewed itself as the 3rd Rome, taking on the mantle of all that numinous history.

You can also find this concept that Russia will redeem the world in art, literature and music. Dostoyevsky, especially, was a big proponent of this idea, but he wasn’t alone. There was a feeling among the intelligentsia and many others in the aristocracy and working classes that Russia had a special mission, a special role to play in the destiny of all mankind.

This feeling can be a good and powerful thing, but in retrospect it can also be twisted to serve other ends that are not as wholesome.

…And a Theory of History and Power
So where does all this leave us? A fear of foreign invasion and of domestic anarchy? And a messianic vision?

One of the first historians to attempt a holistic vision of Russian history, and still one of the best, came to a startling conclusion. His name was Nicolai Karamazin.

Karamzin_by_Tropinin_(1818,_Tretyakov_gallery)

He decided that the system Russia really needed was the one it already had: autocracy. In his famous History of the Russian State, he argued that history and geography were inescapable realities. Russia was no small, insular mountainous country or remote island. It was a vast realm in the heart of Eurasia. And it had a history of foreign invasions coming thick and fast and the ever-present  threat of rebellion and anarchy from within. It was naturally suited to autocracy. And, in fact, autocracy had saved Russia. Without autocracy and the tsar, Russia   would succumb to its natural centrifugal forces—flying off into a thousands different ethnicities, religions and groups all at one another’s throats—just like during the Time of Troubles. Only the tsar could save and preserve the Russian state. Needless to say, the tsar liked his book! Over time this concept morphed into the tsarist formula of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality”—a new formula known as Official Nationality under Nicolas I.

Interestingly, Karamazin was ethnically a Tatar, one of the Mongol groups which had accompanied (and suffered from) Genghis khan and his general and sons’ original conquests. Perhaps he believed only a khan could master the steppe. Oops! I mean “only a tsar could rule Russia.”

The Dynamo of Russian History: Lost Wars Result in Reform
Karamazin’s theory fits pretty well and it’s a neat, tidy analysis. I think Karamazin had a point, but was not entirely right. Geography and history, though compelling, are not fate. Humans can choose their destiny, rightly or wrongly. If Russia had not entered World War I and stayed aloof, czarism might have prevailed. Or Russian could have transitioned—probably still bloodily and chaotically—into a constitutional monarchy (consider modern Spanish history)—or even become a democracy at some point. But the fact is, it didn’t. Russia followed an older pattern. In 1914, Russia like most countries, it optimistically entered the war. But the war became a deadlocked bloodbath. Gross incompetence led to losses and the economy suffered as inflation soared. The tsar fell and the Bolsheviks, taking a bold risk and with plenty of help from Germany—pulled off a coup and seized power in the name of the people and began the world’s first Communist state. But was it such a break with history as the Bolsheviks claimed?

I believe this pattern fits with Karamazin, but I will add one more thing: The Dynamo of Russian History. It’s essentially this: every major reform or revolution in Russia has come about as a result of military defeat. So, let’s take a look:

Year Military Defeat Reform/Revolution
1200s-1400s Mongol Invasion Crushing of Novgorod, Pskov Republics. Primacy of Grand Prince of Moscow.
1598-1613 The Time of Troubles/Polish invasion Foundation of Romanov dynasty
1700 Defeat at Battle of Narva Western reforms of Peter
1856 Defeat in Crimean War Emancipation of the serfs
1905 Defeat in Russo-Japanese War 1905 Russia revolution, foundation of the Duma
1917 Inept participation in  World War I Bolshevik Revolution
1989-1991 Defeat in Afghanistan Collapse of the USSR, free market “shock therapy” reforms under Yeltsin
??? ??? ???

I guess you could say, the Russians pride themselves on being good in a fight. (And they are!) But when they lose, and especially when they lose big, they cast about for someone to blame and it’s usually the current leadership.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of complex history. And it fits some data points nicely and others not so much. The best matchup is the Crimean War and the emancipation of the serfs. In 1856 it became clear that Russia could no longer militarily, economically and technologically compete with the other Great Powers. Something was holding back the country and needed to change. One glaring difference was that serfdom was still alive and well in Russia and it became the main culprit. So, a new czar came to the throne and freed the serfs almost overnight. Others events don’t fit as well. For example, Russia won the Napoleonic War, but still faced a massive revolution known as the Decembrists Uprising a few years later. So this idea doesn’t always fit.

It may also simple be a trait of human (not just Russian) nature: during times of war we’re more liable to be outward thinking. When peace is declared and the armies come home, we start thinking about the people closer to us we and the problems at home that have been festering while the troops were abroad. Suddenly, all that outward facing energy is facing inward and upheaval can result.

And also importantly: I don’t want this to minimize the bloody badness of the Russian Revolution and subsequent related atrocities and—let’s be honest—crimes. The Russian Revolution wasn’t simply a “reform” it was also an elemental upheaval that destroyed millions of lives and still has a negative effect on the country today.

What Might this Mean for Russia’s Future?
So, what might this mean for the future? This is where the fun comes in. And someday, we’ll see if this model has any predictive power. The chief thing is to watch and wait and see if Russia is involved in any wars and starts losing them. Recently, there were the two Chechen wars which Russia was able to extricate itself from, if not win. Then, there were a few wars with Russia’s neighbors, most notably its intervention in the Ukraine in which it won back the Crimea—fair to say not a loss either. The Russian intervention in Syria is perhaps the most notable one they are involved in currently. But, so far, the war seems to be breaking Russia’s way. So, it seems we’ll have to wait a bit more to see if Russia starts losing a war—and it might mean tumult is on the way.

Of course, economic dislocation, resulting in shelves in the capitals of Moscow and St. Pete becoming empty so that the middle class is forced to eat just bread, butter and potatoes might also result in upheaval. It certainly did as recently at the late 80s. Putin appears to be pretty cognizant of both military and economic threats, so it might be quite some time before we see these two strains intertwining and causing chaos again. Bet he (or his advisors) have read their Karamazin!

Bottom Line
Bottom line: The Russian revolution and Bolshevik coup of 1917 should not be seen as total break in Russian history. Revolution and anarchy certainly are nothing new in Russian history. Nor is autocracy. (Maybe they are different sides of the same coin?) In fact, you could argue that the autocracy quickly reasserted itself with the advent of Stalinism, fifteen years after the start of the Revolution (around 1932) as a new, more powerful tsar solidified his grasp on the Kremlin. (Incidentally, that’s almost as long as the Time of Troubles lasted.) And now, though the economic model of the USSR has been smashed, the new Russian leadership has discovered a new capitalist model in which they retain control of “the commanding heights” of the economy while allowing for some capitalist characteristics. The central kernel of Russian autocracy through all sorts of pressures (wars, anarchy, economic collapse) has evolved, adapted and survived. Karamazin would be amazed. But he wouldn’t be surprised.


Phew! That was a long one! Next time, we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming and return to talking about writing. Russia has been an obsession of mine and I just couldn’t let the 100th anniversary go by without doing something.

See you next time!

Darius

PS…And just as I was about to post, this article came up on whether the U.S. has forgotten about its role in World War I! It’s true that it’s not very easy to find WWI monuments in America, either.

Writing On

Hey guys,

Really busy over here with work, writing and Thanksgiving next week. So…Not much of a post this time. I was going to do a big, long hairy post about the Russian Revolution—marking 100 years and all—but that ain’t going to happen this time. Hopefully, next time. And then it will be back to the writing theme.

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But on the creativity front: I am writing fiction and sticking with it. So, that’s good. I have fallen down a bit on submitting new stories and following up on them. I’m hoping to take the long Thanksgiving break and finally get to that. So, all in all, not too shabby.

OK. I will see you guys next time with a much bigger post. Until next time,

Keep Reading, Keep Writing,

Darius


PS…This post from Daniel Davis’ blog featuring Jack Kerouac with Steve Allen on piano really was pretty cool. And somehow, Kerouac’s writing does go down quite well with jazz. You know, like they were made for one another or something…

Swing, Baby, Swing.

Report from New Orleans

Well, I’m back from New Orleans…And it was quite a trip. Last time, I wrote about what I intended to do down there. So, I’m going to break this back down…In fact, the best approach here is to do just one night—one night!—in New Orleans. So, that’s what I’m going to do: the story of one late afternoon and night in New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Clean and Sober

 


Theater—‘On and On Down Burgundy’
I always wanted to cruise down Burgundy just like in that Tom Waits song (see below). And this time, I kinda did. At least, I saw a play down on Burgundy by a local troupe during the afternoon. It was called “Pirates, Prostitutes and Cockroaches!” by the La Fete Theatre Company and was a loving satire on the history of New Orleans with different actors popping up in all three roles. It was cool to get out of the French Quarter, off the tourist track and see some of the entertainment made and consumed by NOLA locals. 

Food—A Shrimp Bisque to Die For
Like I said before coffee, food and music are the cornerstones of civilization. New Orleans has plenty of quality helpings of all three. And here’s the thing, I was trying to figure out this time: What is Creole food? And what is Cajun food?

I can’t say I figured it all out, but I got closer.

I guess where I started figuring it out was at Arnaud’s, which is supposed to be “quality Creole cuisine.” So, it’s Creole or a sort of mixed cuisine (coming from Creole culture), but with a distinct French influence. As opposed to Cajun which is supposed to be more gamey, robust, country food. So, I ordered some shrimp bisque with sherry and trout meuniere with a sauce. My thought there: Creole is French and French food is about butter and sauces. So, gotta order something with sauces…right?

Fine. The shrimp bisque comes and it’s amazing. Perhaps the best soup I’ve ever had—no joke. And yet very simple. But then I notice my friend Matthew, across from me, has alligator sausage. So, I basically beg him for a taste and it’s fantastically good. But why is a Creole place serving a Cajun ingredient (gator)? But in the process, making it Creole?

So, later I make it to a well-known Cajun place, K-Paul’s Kitchen. And I read the menu outside which has beef tenders with a “rich debris gravy” slowly cooked over two days. So, here’s a Cajun place using a “sauce,” one that is rustic and gamey, but it’s still a French-style sauce…And at the Creole place up the street, they’re serving gator!

And then it hit me…There is no pure Creole cuisine, there is no pure Cajun food.

There’s only a continuum. Creole has been taking and mixing and matching Cajun ingredients and using French techniques for years. And Cajun has been borrowing sauces, techniques and ideas from Creole. And inside both of them you can read the history of the peoples and places of Louisiana from colonial times to the present. So, let it be.

Music—A Stroll down Frenchman
So, here’s how this works. You listen to locals, ask them questions and you find a place to go. You walk down there and check the street out. And listen, just listen, as you pass club after club, its music spilling out onto the darkened sidewalks. You walk down the street from end to the other, taking little mental notes the whole while.

Here’s blues…Here’s jazz…Here’s R&B…Here’s rock…Here’s…wait a minute…Something totally different. Hmmm.

You pay your money and you walk in, buy a drink. 

And that’s what we did. That particular night we found this band: Bon Bon Vivant. And they blew us away. In fact, we all bought their CD.

Amazing talent…Live!

And so it went, well and late. And finally we walked out, but there was one last surprise from this old town. The youngest (and perhaps most enthusiastic) crowd of the night was just out on the street listening to a band. And that band was just a bunch of guys and gals without a club to play in and just a bucket out front to put donations in. It was some sort of electronica fusion with a great beat behind it. And you know what? It didn’t sound like anything else on that street. But it was great and the kids, they couldn’t get enough of it. And one day, that band and those kids will be booking the top club on that block and an agent or A&R man will walk in and sign them to a big record deal. And new kids—with a wholly new and strange sound that turns off the grown-ups—will take their place out on the street with nothing but a bucket for tips and some big dreams.

So it goes. And, hopefully, so shall  it remain…


Of course, there was more to New Orleans, there always is. I got to watch the Halloween parade put on by the Boo Krewe, so I finally got to see a real New Orleans parade. The winners were “The Dead Elvises” a group of very pale and dead Elvises on scooters wearing jumpsuits. Oddly, the whole parade had a sort of neighborhood and community-oriented feel, which I wasn’t exactly expecting. Weird. I also made it to Faulkner House Bookstore and perused the books. They had a a good selection with lots of Latin American stuff which was nice to see. And I rode an actual street car every day from the Quarter to MidCity where we stayed.

I also recall tourists in a French Quarter café with a poor, spooked bulldog with its legs tucked between its legs. It was so freaked out that it ran away which they said it had “never done before.” I’m not saying I believe in ghosts, but that poor dog sat through the whole breakfast, its tail straight down between its legs.

I could go on and on here…but I’ll leave that to Tom Waits who wrote a song about New Orleans. Have you heard it? It’s goes something like this. And 1…and 2…and 3…

On and on down Burgundy
A bottle and my friends and me…

“On and on down Bur-gun-dee…”

A Writer Goes to New Orleans—For Halloween

What is it about certain towns? You know, those that draw in writers? As places to write. As places to live. Or places to do a little bit of both…

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Internationally, there’s that perennial favorite, Paris. Then there are some of my favorites: Moscow, Istanbul, Madrid, Fes, Buenos Aires, Arequipa. (Why are so many of these former imperial capitals or ports? Or both?…Anyhow…) Man!—Any one of the towns I could (and sometimes have) set up shop in, find some cheap digs and just write, write, write. Closer to home, here in the U.S., there are lots of choices for literary towns. Dear to many an American writer’s heart is the Big Easy, New Orleans. And lucky me, I’m headed that way this weekend.

And not only is it NOLA, it’s Halloween in New Orleans!!! Which will be sweet. One of the biggest impressions of the city is just its overall spookiness. All those cemeteries with their stone avenues of mausoleums, the hints of voodoo practice in little shrines and altars, the old convents and parks with shut wrought-iron gates. Its whole atmosphere lends itself to Halloween.

Then, there’s the music and the food which are, let’s face it, the cornerstone of civilization once you’ve finished your morning coffee. For music, there’s jazz, as the obvious choice, but also lots more on offer. I’m going to try to find myself some good jazz piano this time around. (Let me know if you have any advice on where to go in the Comments section.)

As for food, my mission this time in NOLA is to really understand the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisine. I think Cajun is the more rustic and country-food/gamey cuisine and Creole is more seafood-based and, well, mixed. But I will have to do a bit more hands-on research here. I also want to try trout—which is apparently a big thing I missed in my previous trips and some authentic Israeli food.

And finally that great literary heritage. There’s Chopin and Faulkner and Tennessee Williams and John Kennedy Toole—all these great mythologizers of the South, New Orleans and America—and all with some connection to this great city. Want to hunt down some of those places connected with them while I’m there.


Here’s a bit more on literary New Orleans from Huff Post. They do a good job of breaking down some of the highlights.

And PS, here’s the number one tip for doing New Orleans right: Get off Bourbon Street, and better yet, out of the French Quarter, and see what’s happening in the rest of town—you won’t regret it! And Gentlemen, don’t forget your dinner jacket, you’ll need it if you want to get into most of the decent restaurants.

See you next time,

DJ

The Greatest Medium

Well, some say the “medium is the message.” This time it’s true. (Or at least the message of this post is about a medium).

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I was out on the Oregon coast this summer, as you know. And I had a great time. Deep-sea fishing, crabbing, going to beer festivals. One small scene unrelated to all of them, really struck me though. It was just a simple moment in the local seaside hotel we were staying in. To one side of the coffee table, I noticed a few used books on the shelf.

It was a cold and misty day, with alterations of sunshine and cloud. With wind at about 50 degrees, you wouldn’t want to stay outside too long (well, we did anyway). It was very tempting to grab one of those books—novels actually—and curl up beside the fire and start reading. But of course, I didn’t. There was too much to do and too much fun to be had.

But it got me thinking…Is there really any other medium like the novel? One in which you can grab a tea or coffee, curl up and be transported to a wholly different world for days on end? Where you can come into another person’s—another soul’s—mind and thoughts and live in their world for such an extended period of time?

I thought about it and I don’t think there is…With the possible exception of video games where you do live in a world for hours or days on end and where you live a sort of first-person existence. But even then, it’s not quite the same. And besides that’s not the point of this post…

The point of this post is that I have always loved the form of the novel. Not for me are short stories with their quick, clever plotting and their swift resolutions. Or even plays which are grand in their immediacy—but too short-lived.

No, best give me a samovar full of tea; a wet, dreary day; and a thick novel. And let me fall into a distant world and learn and grow and develop…and suffer, revel and laugh…along with a character in some far-off realm of imagination. And lit me LIVE there for hours or days until I finally finish the last chapter. That!!! That’s art in its highest form…What could be more sublime? 

Just a thought!

See you next time,

Darius