Wednesday, March 31, 2010


©Leslie Edgerton

Gonna get back to some writing craft stuff today. Hope it helps!

The entire purpose of fiction is to transport the reader into almost a “dream-like state”, to where he or she “suspends their disbelief.” There are many techniques a writer can use to achieve this goal and we will be discussing a few of those that should be helpful.

The use of details in a story is a very powerful means of inducing that dream. Let’s take a real-life example of how details convince others. Let’s assume there is a man, unemployed for six months, whose wife has been carping at him (justifiably) to get a job, but he hasn’t actually looked for months. However, he wants to convince her he’s trying his best to secure employment. On Monday, he has promised her he will go down to the unemployment office and see what they have. Monday evening, when she returns from her own job she asks him if he went as promised. It may go something like this:

“Did you go to the unemployment office today like you promised?” Mary said, her eyebrows raising and her tone skeptical.

“Of course I did. I was there bright and early. They just didn’t have anything I was qualified for. At least I made the effort.”

“Right,” she said. “I believe you, Tony. I really do.” There was pure sarcasm in her voice. Leaving the room to go upstairs and change her work clothes, she spat out one word as she went up the stairs. “Liar!”

Now, this is a passable scene (barely) but the man doesn’t convince his wife and he certainly doesn’t convince the reader. Now, imagine the same situation but structured a little differently:

“Did you go to the unemployment office today like you promised?” Mary said, her tone skeptical.

“Yeah,” Tony said. “Not that it did much good. They didn’t have a single job I was qualified for. Something weird happened, though. There was a lady just in front of me in line and she was nine months pregnant. Just as she got to the window, she started screaming and yelling and collapsed to the floor. People came running from everywhere and somebody called 911 and guess what! She had her damn baby right there! I couldn’t believe it! It was a boy. She was wearing this blue dress and when the blood got on it, it was the weirdest thing. Instead of turning it red, it turned it black. Anyway, it screwed everything up. I bet it was another half hour before they all settled down and I got to see a clerk. Not that it did any good. You’da thought maybe that would have brought me good luck, since I got to jump a place in line, but there wasn’t even one single, solitary job I could do. Unless I lied and told them I could handle heavy equipment. I thought about even doing that--lie--but I knew they’d figure it out as soon as I crawled up on that caterpillar seat that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. How was your day? A little less traumatic, I hope?”

See the difference? In the first example, whether Tony was speaking the truth or not it didn’t matter - Mary didn’t believe him and we don’t either. In the second example, by use of detail to embellish his story, it would be difficult not to believe Tony. There’s a pregnant lady - she’s the one in front of him - she’s wearing a blue dress that turns black where the blood spotted it - and so on and so on. By the use of details, he has turned a weak lie into a story that would be hard to disbelieve.

Tony also used something else to suspend his wife’s disbelief. He used tension. What could have been a tenser situation than what he was describing! Tension keeps the reader turning the pages and overlooking the fact he or she knew when beginning the story - that it was fiction and therefore a lie.

James Frey, in his book How To Write A Damn Good Novel, II informs that the fictive dream is created by the power of suggestion. He goes on to say that “the power of suggestion is the operant tool of the ad man, the con man, the propagandist, the priest, the hypnotist, and, yes, the fiction writer.” That’s exactly what we are doing when we write fiction--we’re running a con game. We’re lying to readers. The trick is to get them (the reader) to believe the lie.

Besides the use of details and creating tension, the writer must provide for the reader an emotional involvement. This is done by creating sympathy, identification, and empathy for the protagonist. Once we care, on some level, about the character the story is about, we will suspend our disbelief and keep on reading.

Sympathy for a character is created in a number of ways. Sympathy does not necessarily mean admiration, which Frey points out. He offers the character of Jake LaMotta in the film Raging Bull for an example. LaMotta beats his wife, seduces underage girls, has a horrible temper, suffers from paranoia and speaks in grunts. He is a total savage. Yet the LaMotta character in the movie gets enormous audience sympathy. Why? Because, at the start of the movie, LaMotta is living in ignorance, degradation and poverty and so the audience feels sorry for him, and therefore will follow him on the screen through his story, regardless of the fact that he is a brutish lout in almost all respects.

Sympathy is how a reader gains emotional access to a story and without it there is no involvement and the reader will put down the book or story.

Second, the reader must identify with the character. This happens when the reader is not only sympathetic with the character’s situation but also applauds his or her goals and wants the character to achieve them. Frey again gives some very good examples:

In Jaws, the reader supports Brody’s goal to destroy the shark.

In The Red Badge of Courage, the reader supports Henry’s desire to prove to himself he isn’t a coward.

In Gone With The Wind, the reader supports Scarlett’s desire to get her plantation back after it is destroyed by Yankees. (I can relate to that, being a Southerner!)

The way to achieve identification is to give the main character goals and desires that the reader will view as desirable him- or herself.

The third technique in achieving emotional involvement for the reader is empathy. Empathy is an even more powerful emotion than sympathy. A husband suffering birth pains along with his wife is an example of empathy. Empathy is simply the reader putting himself in the shoes of the character. One way to do this is to use the power of suggestion. Use details to suggest what it is like to be the character and experience what he or she is experiencing. Using my own story “My Idea of a Good Thing” in Monday's Meal, Raye is not a particularly admirable character--she’s addicted to alcohol, for example. It would have created little empathy if I had just drawn her as this weak-willed person who just can’t say no to a drink--but when you show the reader what her struggle is like, then most people can identify with her on some level and will then gain empathy. For instance, most people aren’t alcoholics, but most of us have fallen prey to some form of addiction. Maybe it’s cigarettes, maybe it’s chocolates, maybe it’s always falling for the wrong man or woman. There are lots of examples. By using details of the internal struggle, the reader can identify with their own private struggles. Reaching for a bottle of Stoli may evoke images within the reader of reaching for the pack of Marlboros or that pint of Haagen-Daz Chocolate-Chocolate Chip in the supermarket
Once you have established sympathy, identification and empathy for your character, you’ve created a strong emotional bond between that character and the readers. One final step is needed to bring the reader into that hypnotic state of suspended disbelief, called the plenary state in hypnosis. We are striving for the same effect.

Inner conflict.

This is the key to transporting the reader. It’s the storm that rages inside the characters heart, mind and soul. In fiction we have an advantage over media like film in showing inner conflict. In films this conflict can be shown only in exterior ways. In the written word and in plays, we have more tools since we can actually go into the character’s minds and we can use dialogue more abundantly than one can in movies. Too much dialogue in movies usually results in a kind of “talking heads” kind of production, but entire books have been successfully written almost entirely in dialogue. And what is a stage play without dialogue!

To create inner conflict we need to show the character’s guilt, doubts, misgivings and remorse and we need to show the character struggling with decisions. There have to be decisions to be made to achieve the goal of the character and they can’t be easy decisions. Nothing that is black and white. The best literature is shaded gray. There should be pros and cons to each decision on the way to goal-achievement, and whatever is gained should be with some loss. Scarlett O’Hara, for example, ultimately gains her beloved Tara, but at the cost of two men who loved her and for whom she had love, albeit with bad timing. She gains the thing that is most important to her but in the process loses something almost equally valuable. This is the stuff of literature.

Frey again gives an excellent way to think of inner conflict. He suggests thinking of it as a battle between two voices within the character: one of reason, the other of passion--or of two conflicting passions. Within the character him or herself rages a protagonist and an antagonist.

Again, using my own story, Raye has a voice inside telling her she must stop drinking or die and another voice convincing her that if she does quit the booze, she will lose her soul or at least that which makes her an artist and therefore human. Which is preferable? To live physically and die emotionally or to do the reverse? In a perfect, happy-ending, fairy-tale kind of story, she could have both. She could dry out and find she plays even better than before, but that isn’t real life (at least not Raye’s “real life”).

Try this: Pick a story you especially like (you can use the one you’re writing now, if you choose), and see if you can pick out how the author has created sympathy, identification and empathy for the main character. Then, identify the internal crisis in the protagonist’s mind. This is only for your own use - not to be shared with the rest of us and is designed to have you look at stories in their bare essence. Basically, you will be looking for what the character wants and why did you (reader) care enough to keep reading to see if the goal was achieved.

It's important that the author create this in the beginning of her story - empathy, sympathy and/or identification for the central character. Else why should the reader continue?

Answer: He/she won't…

Monday, March 29, 2010


(This was sent to me a long time ago by someone and I can’t remember who it was to give them credit. Sorry! Out of the mouths of babes… Whoever sent it to me was a woman, as evidenced by the asides furnished...)

HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHO TO MARRY? (written by kids)

(1) You got to find somebody who likes the same stuff. Like, if you like sports, she should like it that you like sports, and she should keep the chips and dip coming. - Alan, age 10

(2) No person really decides before they grow up who they're going to marry. God decides it all way before, and you get to find out later who you're stuck with. - Kristen, age 10


(1) Twenty-three is the best age because you know the person FOREVER by then. - Camille, age 10

(2) No age is good to get married at. You got to be a fool to get married. – Freddie, age 6 (very wise for his age)


(1) You might have to guess, based on whether they seem to be yelling at the same kids. - Derrick, age 8


(1) Both don't want any more kids. - Lori, age 8


(1) Dates are for having fun, and people should use them to get to know each other. Even boys have something to say if you listen long enough. - Lynnette, age 8 (isn't she a treasure)

(2) On the first date, they just tell each other lies and that usually gets them interested enough to go for a second date. - Martin, age 10 (Who said boys do not have brains)


(1) I'd run home and play dead. The next day I would call all the newspapers and make sure they wrote about me in all the dead columns.-Craig, age 9


(1) When they're rich.- Pam, age 7 (I could not have said it better myself)

( 2) The law says you have to be eighteen, so I wouldn't want to mess with that. - Curt, age 7 (Good Point)

(3 ) The rule goes like this: If you kiss someone, then you should marry them and have kids with them. It's the right thing to do. - Howard, age 8 (Who made that rule)

It’s better for girls to be single but not for boys. Boys need someone to clean up after them. – Anita, age 9 (bless you, child)


(1 ) There sure would be lot of kids to explain, wouldn't there?
- Kelvin, age 8

And the #1 Favorite is........


(1 ) Tell your wife that she looks pretty, even if she looks like a
truck. - Ricky, age 10 ( The boy already understands)

Friday, March 26, 2010


Back to writing for a bit...

"As" and "ing" Are Considered Hack and Amateurish Constructions
Les Edgerton

There are two stylistic constructions that are generally considered "hack" writing constructions, namely:

Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.
As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.

Both the as construction and the -ing construction as used above are correct grammatically and express the action clearly and unambiguously. But notice that both of these constructions take a bit of action ("She pulled off her gloves...") and tuck it away into a dependent clause. ("Pulling off her gloves..."). This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant. And so if you use these constructions often, you weaken your writing.

Another reason to avoid the as and -ing constructions is that they sometimes give rise to physical impossibilities. Say you're writing as an archaeologist character describing her field work and you write, "Disappearing into my tent, I changed into fresh clothes." The -ing construction forces simultaneity on two actions that can't possibly be simultaneous. The archaeologist didn't duck into the tent and pull on clean clothes at the same time - she was an archaeologist, not a contortionist.

A better alternative to the above example would be to write, "She pulled off her gloves, turned to face him." Or, you can make an -ing phrase less conspicuous by moving it to the middle of the sentence rather than the beginning. The participle construction has a particularly amateurish flavor when placed at the beginning of the sentence.

Look at the following examples to see how these constructions weaken your writing, with the as and -ing constructions in boldfaced type:

Ripping off several large, dripping hunks of burrito, she pulled a chair up to the kitchen table and took a large bite. As she chewed, she wondered who she was maddest at. James, she decided.

The doorbell rang. "Cheryl, it's me!" boomed a deep, authoritative voice. "James!"

Spotting her favorite red silk kimono crumpled on the floor, Cheryl stooped over and picked it up. As she pulled the kimono over her shoulders, she said a prayer of thanks that the wrinkled look was in.

As her fingers unfastened the chain lock, she wondered how James had gotten her address. It wasn't listed in the telephone book.

"Good evening," James greeted with a small bow as the door swung open.

"The bug man came last week," Cheryl said sarcastically, refusing to budge from the door, "I thought he'd exterminated all the pests in my life, but I guess he must have missed one. A big one."

"Funny, very funny," James said, clearly not amused as he leaned an arm against the door jamb. "Now you'd better let me in before I start causing a scene."

Now take a look at the same scene again, with the as and -ing clauses removed, along with some of the other problems, such as eliminating weak adverbs:

She pulled up a chair to the kitchen table and took a large bite of the burrito she'd found behind the milk and orange juice bottles. Who was she maddest at? Probably James.

The doorbell rang. "Cheryl, it's me!"

James. It had to be.

Cheryl sighed, stooped over and picked up her red silk kimono from the floor. Thank god the wrinkled look was in. But how had James gotten her address? It wasn't listed in the telephone book.

"Good evening." He made a small bow.

"The bug man came last week." Cheryl didn't budge from the door. "I thought he'd exterminated all the pests in my life, but I guess he must have missed a big one."

"Funny, very funny." James leaned an arm against the door jamb. "You'd better let me in before I start causing a scene."

This admittedly isn't deathless prose, but the editing has made the passage subtler and more professional. Notice that also missing in the second version are the weak adverbs and some of the other, unnecessary slag of the first version.

The point is, when an editor sees as and -ing constructions, a little red light goes off and he thinks, "Amateur." You don't want that to happen. This is one of the first things you should check for in your rewrites. Use your "Find" feature to seek out and destroy all of these hack constructions, along with the -ly adverbs that almost always just weaken the prose.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Thought I'd stick with the lighter stuff another day at least. This is something I wrote about six years ago and didn't know where to send it to get published. Then, I thought--I bet I could sell it to myself! I didn't get the price I wanted, but nothing's perfect, is it?

Genealogy/By Les Edgerton

For the longest time, I've been urging my twelve-year-old son Mike to quit that stupid middle school he goes to and get a good-paying job at the Woodvale Shopping Outlet 7-11 out on Highway 12.

"Look at all the advantages," I've said, feeling for the umpteenth time that my words were traveling through the space between his ears. "Most kids wait till they're sixteen and drop out of school to get their first position behind the counter. You'll have a four-year jump on those mugwumps. Think ahead. I wish I had when I was your age! I'll help you, you know. I've got a source for fake I.D.'s, the whole schmear. My guy can even whip you up a graduation certificate that you can't tell from the real ones, case The Man shows up." "The Man" being the truant officer who patrols this area, harassing decent, hard-working kids on behalf of something called the "system."

"You're big for your age, Mike," I said, in my concluding argument. "You'll have no trouble at all, passing for sixteen."

Mike's got this whacky idea that if he stays in school and graduates he'll be able to go to college and become a doctor.

A doctor!

"Have you forgotten last summer when you fainted when you fell off the slide and broke your leg and saw a little blood? You think a doctor faints at the sight of a tiny little smear of red? That's a doctor that's not going to last long before he's driving a Yellow Cab on the graveyard shift!"

"It wasn't the blood," he said, in that irritating argumentative tone preteens seem to favor these days. "It was the bone sticking out."

Right. Like the sight of a dinky little white stick would make someone pass out!

"Whatever you say," I answered, more than a hint of sarcasm in my voice and probably a smirk on my lips, which I couldn't hold back. We both knew what it was that caused him to keel over and it wasn't some minuscule little bone fragment.

"Well, you better get more used to work than you are now," I said. "Doctors work twenty-two hour days, seven days a week. They don't even have time to brush their teeth before they have to stick somebody's heart back in their chest cavity or do mouth-to-mouth on some wino who's choked on their Boone's Farm. I can't even get you to make your bed on a consistent basis. And, when was the last time you picked up your underwear? I see a pair right now over in the corner that have been laying there at least a week."

That was a mistake. His eyes lighted up when he learned he wouldn't have to brush his teeth 7/52. That's all he picked up out of all I'd said. A major perk in his mind.

I tried to counter that with the many benefits of a convenience store career.

"Slurpys," I said. "All the Slurpys you can guzzle down. All day long. And magazines. Have you thought about all the magazines you can read? For free??? While your moron friends are studying calculus and logging time in detention popping their pimples, you'll be flipping September's Playmate of the Month foldout open and reading informative and educational articles. Without having to even give up your allowance to buy it or having to hide it under your mattress! Not only that, but by the time you're sixteen, you'll be the assistant manager already. On the day shift! Do you realize people in the convenience business will kill to snag the day shift? And bossing around those slackers who waited too long and fell subsequently far behind you from the gitgo in their own shortsighted career paths."

None of my logic and arguments seem to work. He's bound and determined to stay in school. All I can do is hope he comes to his senses before it's too late and he arrives at the ripe old age of sixteen and finds out he's in line with twenty-nine other dropouts for the same job he could have had just for the asking four years earlier. Those four years will go by faster than he thinks.

I just don't want Mike to make the same mistakes I've made when I was his age. I think most dads can relate. Like Hitler said, "Youth is wasted on the young." Which is the real reason "Mein Adolf" founded the Hitler Youth. To help kids realize before it was too late they were throwing away their salad days along with the salad dressing. Hitler was lucky. He had a whole country at his disposal and didn't even have to do much to gain the people's support. Just make a few trains run on schedule and he becomes a regular god! Or was that that Italian guy... No matter.

Would that I'd been so fortunate when I was a young lad!

But, no. I had the kind of father who was a miserable follower. A Merino sheep, trés-docile variety. Pappy looked around our neighborhood and saw that all the other dads made their kids go to school and sure enough, there I was, sitting on my butt in third-hour English with all the rest of the little lambs whose fathers bought into the Trilateral Commission's clever-but-insidious plan. That "not-so-secret" master plan to keep Americans wage slaves for the rest of our lives by wasting our formative days in studying utterly-useless information solely designed to keep us from thinking for ourselves.

George Orwell, you were sooooo right!!!!!!

There were no 7-11's when I was a boy--kids have it all today!!!--but there was an Conoco gas station on our corner and the owner told me he'd hire me in a minute to sweep his floors and do simple stuff like oil changes and tranny lubes. Think my father would let me quit school and take advantage of this man's generous offer to teach me a useful and high-paying trade?


Oh, I've told Mike more than once about my own father and how I'm trying to provide better opportunities for him than my stinkin' old man gave me, but does it register?


You'd think he'd open his eyes and unplug the wax in his ears around his own house, see what goes on.

I'm speaking of his mother. The woman I generously provided a home and marriage and many, many luxuries and other amenities to, at a time in her life when she was wasting away in college, misspending her valuable time pursuing such "useful" skills as training a mouse to run a maze. Yes, that's right. Training a rodent to go from here to there in a subdivided box. That's all she did in this one class, Psych 101, she was always yammering about. Three hundred sixty-four bucks she laid out at Rosedale Community College for Psych 101 and all you did was feed a rat a piece of Cheez-Whiz every time it made the so-called "correct" turn. For four months this went on. The hardest thing the prof had to do in his so-called "job" was stifle his giggling every time the suckers piled into his classroom and headed for the mouse housing projects in the back. P.T. Barnum was a piker compared to this slickster.

"Oh, yeah, rat lab," I remember mentioning to her at the time, with tongue-in-cheek. "There's a big demand for that out there. I was just looking at the want ads in Sunday's paper and there must have been six and a half columns of ads from big-shot mouse executives searching desperately for experts to train their rats to run mazes. And the pay! You'd be amazed at what these guys are offering for mouse professionals. And that's just with a bachelor's! Don't even ask what master degree holders are getting! If you've got a doctorate, you need to start looking at houses with enough land for a small landing strip for your own private Lear jet that'll be whisking you off to Bermuda and the South of France on your many generously-provided-for vacations."

Back then she used to laugh at stuff like that, say I was the funniest guy she'd ever known. That's all changed.

Boy, and how!

I wish Mike could have seen us together back then. When his mother was a kind, compassionate woman with a rich, warm sense of humor, instead of the shrew she's become and the kind of nagging, whining harpy he's always observed around the house.

Back then, she was more than happy to be married to an inventor-slash-idea man. In those early, halcyon days, she was more than anxious to give her full support, both emotionally and in a practical way--by working a couple of easy jobs--to help further her husband's career. Does she still grant that unconditional and loving succor?

Ha! I wish!

You wouldn't have even asked such a question if you'd been by our house any weekday during the past six years at four-thirty p.m. when she arrived home… and just opened your ears a tiny bit as you were passing by!

You wouldn't believe some of the things she says to me. Screams in that fishwife's shrill, irritating screech she has, I should say. In front of our only child, Mike, the fruit of our collective loins. What she supposes that does to the integrity of our family unit, I can't imagine. She doesn't have a clue what massive, irreversible damage is being done to our son's Id and Super Id when she makes her crude, insensitive, hateful remarks.

Read some Freud, girlfriend!!!

I hate to think about what kind of family he'll create some day. Does the name "Son of Sam" ring a bell???

Just about every day, for instance, she'll come home from her first job, walk in the house and see me hard at work. Does she say, "Hi, sweetheart. Whatcha working on? Would you share with me? I love to hear about your work! Take a break, hon, and come sit by me and tell me about some of the many knotty problems I know you're facing. Maybe you'd like a nice backrub to iron out all those nasty tensions and relieve the mental stress. Can I fix you a tasty rum and coke?"

No. She does not say that or anything resembling that. Not Miss Belinda nee Walker. Not Miss "I've Been Working-So Hard At The RV Factory And My Feet Hurt And Soon I Have To Go To My Telemarketing Job" Belinda. You kidding? You can't imagine a more selfish woman, who's totally into herself and no room for anything in that narrow world as inconsequential as a mere husband who's aged years beyond his chronological age from the never-ending tension she's created with her unreasonable attitude.

No. What she says, almost every time is, "On the couch again, eh? You know, when you get up, there's an imprint on the cover looks exactly like your body? I catch myself thinking it's the pattern they sewed in at the factory and wonder why they chose that. I wonder more why we bought it."

Funny lady!

She knows my work is 99.9% in my mind. Maybe a stranger or layman not familiar with the processes that are crucial to inventing the new products and ideas society desperately wants and needs would imagine I was just lying there daydreaming instead of what I'm actually doing--working my butt off to the bone!!! But, Belinda knows better and yet she elects to lash out at moi (yours truly) with these infantile, hurtful remarks. She also knows that the TV helps me immensely in the thinking process. I'm not really watching "Days of Our Lives" even though to an uninformed eye, it may appear that's what's going on. That's merely a form of white noise that helps me attain the proper frame of mind which only happens to be absolutely necessary for the tough mental drudgery required. I work much the same as a writer does. If I was a famous novelist and had sixty-eight bestsellers out and was lauded on "The Larry King Show" and "Oprah" and "Nick at Nite" would she make such asinine comments?


I'd like to talk to Mrs. Stephen King and see what she has to say. What I'd really like to do is get Mrs. Stephen King over to the house, get her in the kitchen with Belinda and say to her, "Hey. Educate this woman, will ya? Tell her what you say when you walk in on Steve in the Barcolounger and he's staring at the ceiling. Bet what you don't say is, 'Hey, Stevie, you on the Barco again? You know when you get up there's an exact imprint of your body on the leather. Ha, ha.'
We both know the answer to that, don't we?

Unfortunately, not only am I not Hitler nor do I have his historical luck to be in the right place at the right time with the trains and all--I'm not Stephen King either and that puts me at the mercy of a short-sighted and sadly-ignorant woman who doesn't deserve to have the genius of a husband she was fortunate enough to have trapped into that blissful state of matrimony she enjoys.


Mike doesn't take notice of other things, either, that might have a positive influence on his career decisions. Like the times I've put on hold the important work I'm doing to go out and get a job in what usually turns out to be a vain attempt to keep Belinda from her constant yammering. More than once, I've sacrificed my call to the inventing/idea profession to simply shut her up and gain a bit of peace in the household.

Pacify the witch!!! is a crude, but accurate way of describing the sacrifices I make many times!!!

A good example was the time I became a genealogist. It wasn't my first choice, but after poring over the help wanted ads for several weeks and not finding anything I could put my unique abilities and talents to use in, I spotted what seemed at the time to be an interesting offer. It even seemed to be intellectually-challenging and that's what I was after more than anything else. Some kind of work that would stimulate the ol' gray matter, get the lead out, so-to-speak, to coin a phrase.

What the ad wanted was a person who could assist this guy in researching his family's history.

Detective work.

Oh, sure--I figured some of the work would involve boring computers and probably even being stuck in some musty library poring over faded marriage certificates illegibly-written in Olde English and such--but I sensed there might be some travel involved too, and probing interviews with all kinds of interesting people, some of whom might even be famous. If I was lucky, maybe the guy (his name was Aaron B. Rodthistle, according to the ad), would discover he had some one hundred and two-year-old great-aunt or a fifth-cousin living in Bimini and I'd be dispatched to gather vital information from her before she shuffled off her mortal coil (whatever that is!!!) and the critical info was lost forever.

Would I bring my swimsuit to that interview? You decide!

Yeah, well, was I fooled…

As it turned out, my first hunch was correct. I spent days and days at the downtown library--the main branch where all the genealogy stuff was kept--and mostly what I did was walk around asking dumb questions of people in the genealogy department who didn't know squat about genealogy. Look over there," was their most common answer, pointing to some bookshelf way in the back, looked like you should take a cab to get to. "Look under R."

I'd hike my way down to the spot indicated, weaving around the winos who used the library for their naps, only to find sixteen books of Rodthistles alone. I'm supposed to wade through all that, I thought? Yeah, right.

Realizing it was a hopeless cause, I decided to use my time more constructively than in some useless rummaging around in a bunch of moldy books that were hopelessly out-of-date and probably about a different branch of the Rodthistle family than the one I was supposed to research. I'd been working on a process to keep unsightly dandruff off of executives' suit shoulders and was close to a breakthrough. My inventor's instincts told me the solution was hidden somewhere within the magical and fascinating worlds of electro-magneticism and molecular chemistry. Some compound that would repel the nasty flakes away from the material in suit jackets. I knew the answer lay in something simple that no one had thought of. A combination of two common household elements that, if the suit was simply and easily treated with the formula, would cause the offending particles to fly off in the opposite direction like steel shavings do when they come into close proximity with a negative magnet. Something like that. A solution, so simple in hindsight, that I'd smack my forehead in rueful, self-deprecating humor, exclaiming something out loud like, "Boy-o-boy! Doesn't that beat all! This was right in front of my very nose all the time!" A humorous anecdote I could use in my speech should I find myself in Stockholm, accepting a certain very well-known prize… I can see my idea culminated symbolically and expressively in my imaginative mind. It appears to me as a cartoon, in which a delighted Armani-clad CEO is watching tiny flakes whiz away from him, disappearing in a mist of white and falling harmlessly to the floor as he stands outside his firm's board room, a sign informing, "IMPORTANT MEETING TODAY!!! BE THERE OR BE SQUARE!!! I find it hard sometimes to articulate exactly what I see in my head, but it doesn't matter, as I know exactly what I'm seeing and that's all that really matters for the inventing process. If I can see it, I can do it. Ghandi or Vince Lombardi or someone like that said that and it's true. I've even got that posted above my workspace in the garage. I typed it out and framed it and I look at it every time I go out there to work, taking a silent moment to let the words make their impact. It doesn't say, "If I can see it, I can do it"--substitute "you's" for the "I's" and that's what it says, literally, but you get the idea.

Anyway, instead of frittering away precious research hours on Mr. Aaron B. Rodthistle's stupid family crap--the bit of investigating I did complete revealed a family tree more boring than you could possibly imagine--I invested my time instead perusing the many informative volumes in the hard science section. Once or twice, I was this close to a breakthrough, but even though I came tantalizingly near to the elusive answer I sought, I was unable to unlock the formula (that was probably right in front of that aforementioned nose!) during my time there. It wasn't wasted time, though. Not in my estimation. In my mind, every dead end you encounter leads you closer and closer to the right cul-de-sac! Take that for some constructive criticism, you "the glass is half-empty" negatoids!!!

I may still have been employed in that useless and (in my opinion) vain work on behalf of Mr. Aaron B. Rodthistle, when one day, whilst poring over a college-level chemical text, one of the librarians who'd gotten to recognize me and knew my mission, came over and asked if I was still doing research for Aaron B. Rodthistle.

"Why, yes," I replied. "I'm taking a brief sabbatical from my investigation at the moment, but shortly I'll be cracking those hundred-year-old death certificates, you bet!"

She snorted. "You know, we all think he's a 'lune,' don't you? It's why he hired you. He won't come around here any more because we all fall down laughing every time he comes in the door."

"What's so funny?"

"HE'S AN ORPHAN!" She hooted that out and over behind the counter by the autobiographies and biographies of the famous and near-famous, I saw two librarians collapse behind the desk in paroxysms of laugher when they heard her say that.

"Why does that make him a nut?"

"Why?" she said. "Why??? Why is because he isn't researching his birth parents. Couldn't care a fig about his birth parents. He's researching his adopted family." She pulled out a hanky and swiped at the corner of her eye. "Father's side mostly."

"You're kidding," I said, trying to sort out what this information meant. "Why?"

She sniggered. "We all asked him the same thing. Know what he said?"

I didn't and admitted as much.

"He said…get this…he said his adoptive parents were his only real parents and his biological mother and father didn't count. They'd abandoned him so they didn't matter in his eyes. He only wanted to learn about his heritage…on the adopted parents' side!" She burst into uncontrollable giggles at this last and walked away, shaking her head from side to side.

Well, what could I do? I mean, the guy was an obvious Fruit Loop of the mixed nut variety. While the money was good and the work easy--if you didn't mind being bored into an early grave called "Ennui"!!!--in good conscience, I couldn't keep on backing up to take my check from this fool. Not to mention the harm this might do to my professional reputation should it ever leak out the inane pursuit I'd been involved in!

So I quit.

Do you think Belinda would have empathy for my situation?



I won't repeat the tirade she launched into the day she came home, expecting me to be down at the library as I had been those many long weeks (three) on behalf of Rodthistle's insane pursuit, and found me toiling furiously on the couch. Imagine that for yourself!!! It shouldn't be hard, with what you now know about the woman!

And guess who had just arrived home from school in time to witness her vitriolic harangue? To behold his mom, spittle flying from her mouth as she loosed her invective on her poor, hapless, and bewildered husband?

That's right. My poor, misguided, foolish, overeducated son.

A front-row spectator at this unseemly, savage scene.

"You see?" I said to him, once Belinda had left for that cushy gig she has the nerve to call "work" down at the Speedy Vacuum Cleaner Telemarketing Center. How one can have the balls to call a well-paid and highly-pleasurable activity "work" when it involves chatting for four hours with other housewives, is something I'll never understand. Getting paid good money to gossip over Ma Bell's and Glen Campbell's lines would represent a dream come true for most women of my acquaintance!!!

"You see, Mikey?" I began, the second she slammed the door on her way to that dream job. Loosened it right off the hinges. Just another chore created for the ol' job jar for yours truly by you-know-who… It just never ends… But, I digress!!!

I went on. "Son, your daddy's plight may well become your fate, if you persist in that ill-advised course you've set sail on. You may wake up one day, forty-one and a half years old, at a time when you should be anticipating the golden years of retirement, and find yourself chained to a woman like your mother--a woman whose only aim in life is to cut her husband's balls off at the knees! That what you want? Well, Mister… that's precisely where you're headed if you stubbornly cling to this foolish school thing."

Sensing he didn't quite grasp the same picture of his future I saw oh-so-clearly, I went on. "It's the same old historically-proven domino effect," I said. "You keep going to school, let's say. Let's suppose you even graduate from middle school. You with me so far?"

He nodded.

"The next thing you'll want to do is go to high school. Is that a fair assumption? Can you see where that might happen?"

Again, he nodded. Maybe I was getting through to him after all!!!

"Okay, then. Put yourself in the future. You're standing in a big mob of people with teal-blue robes on and mortar-boards on their heads. You've all just been praised to the rooftops by a bunch of middle-aged geezers who've spent the past two hours telling you you're the "hope of the future" and "the brightest of the bright" and other such pablum and ludicrous drivel. You're human--you like praise like all of us do--and you buy into this crapola they've been dishing out. Follow?"

He claimed he did by yet another nod.

"Right after this graduation charade, you'll probably go to some classmate's house for a big party, where you'll get drunk on 3.2 beer and wind up in a bedroom with Easy Sally, getting some honey on your stinger. I know what I'm talking about here, son. Don't ask how I know."

Again he nodded, more vigorously than the other times and I noted he had that same gleam in his eye that he did when he found out doctors don't have time to brush their teeth.

I cut to the chase.

"What'll happen after that, is that you'll get this bright idea to go on to college and what do you suppose will happen there?"

He shrugged his shoulders. I could tell from the distant look in his gaze that he was still back there with Easy Sally at the graduation party. Kids…

"I'll tell you what will happen." I grabbed him by his shoulders, pulled him sharply toward me until our noses were inches apart. I had his attention now!

"You'll be going to rat lab and buying into the same propaganda your mother did and your brain will atrophy away until it's the size of a diseased black walnut. What little of it you've still got, that is! You'll end up conning people on fixed incomes to purchase life insurance or maybe find yourself back at your old middle school, leading little morons down the same deadened path you just traveled on, but now on the other side of the desk as a "teacher." (I spat out the last word.) "You know what else will happen, Mike? You'll think you have to marry a girl who also has a college education. Don't smile. You will. You'll look down at those girls who had the smarts to quit school early and make something of themselves. You won't even look at the girls who could do you some good, stand by you in your climb up the 7-11 ladder of success. You'll want one of those silly college girls instead. Someone like…" I hesitated and took a deep breath. "… your mother. You want that?"

He didn't know what to say. He was obviously stricken by the horrible Polaroid of the fate that loomed before him that I'd just shared with him. Dazed and downhearted and woebegone. It was all over his forlorn little kisser. At that moment, I so desperately wanted to take pity on him. After all, he was my only son and I loved him to pieces! I detested having to do this to him, but the sooner he learned about the real world, the better off he'd be. The truth may hurt, but it's the truth that shall set ye free as it wisely says in Joshua or Deuterotomy or Acts 3:11, somewhere like that.

"Okay," I said, more gently now. "That's one scenario. The certain fate that awaits you if you keep hopping on that yellow bus every morning."

I waited to let that sink in before going on.

"But then…"

Once more, I outlined what could be clearly a more glorious and rewarding future in the convenience store business. When I finished, I reached behind me to the object I'd been waiting to give him. The "deal-clincher" as an aluminum-siding salesman would say.

Without a word, I handed it to him. This was an event that needed no explanation. One of those ageless father-son ritual moments.

The December issue of Playboy Magazine.

The year-end, wrap-up issue, the one with the photos of all the previous year's Playmate's of the Month.

"Here, Mikey," I said, after giving him a moment to comprehend what he held in his hands. "This is a glimpse at your future should you choose the right road. While other kids your age will have to sneak around to get their hands on these, you'll have free and easy access to as many as you want. While they're hiding their purloined copies under their mattresses--not knowing that's the first place parents look!--you'll be able to just casually stroll over to Aisle 6 and pick up your own copy… whenever you want!"

I waited until he looked up, my heart gladdened at the emotion I saw expressed there.

"And, best of all--you'll be getting paid serious money to read these!!! You'll also be getting paid to eat all the Slim Jims you want. I've already mentioned Slurpys--you know how much you like Slurpys!!! Hostess Ho-Ho's! At the same time you're knocking down a regular, man-sized paycheck for all this fun you'll be having, picture your former schoolmates. Hunkered down over their six-pound math books, struggling to understand something called 'quantum physics.' How many times do you suppose anyone uses quantum physics in their jobs? That should tell you something right there about the "value" of your so-called 'education!' Think about it. How many times do you suppose someone's boss comes up to them and says, 'Well, Ralph, you know it's time for your year-end review. If you can tell me what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, you'll get a nice raise and that promotion you've been wanting!' Can you guess how many times that happens in the workplace, Mister Student?"

We talked some more and while I'd like to report Mike saw the wisdom of what I was telling him and quit school on the spot and went down and filled out a 7-11 app, I'd be lying. A victory of sorts was achieved, however.

At the end of our talk, he agreed to at least go down and see if he could snag a part-time job after school. While this isn't the complete triumph I'd hoped for, it represents at least a partial one. I feel confident that once he's on the job and experiences the many benefits therein, he'll take that next step and apply for full-time hours.

I praised him for his mature decision, and in the true nature of the born salesman which I could have been if I'd so desired, ended our talk by letting him in on yet another of the many benefits of the career he was embarking on.

"I haven't even mentioned the uniform," I confided. "Women go bananas over uniforms. Picture yourself in your white shirt with the company logo stitched over the pocket and that snappy azure-blue bow tie! Think that doesn't attract the babes???!!!"

I can't wait to see his mother's face when she learns about the decision he's made.

We'll soon learn who's captain of this ship! I don't think it will prove to be a certain telemarketer!!!

Monday, March 22, 2010


Hey Campfire buddies,

Since my last few posts have been on the serious side, I thought it might be a good idea to lighten up a bit. Not that I don’t take this “Goldfish Whisperer” stuff seriously—I have never taken anything more seriously in my life. Well… except maybe for Al Gore causing global warming with his enormous electricity usage…

I guess I better explain what a Goldfish Whisperer is for those of you who live in the Midwest and consider terms like “white pride” to mean rotating the tires on your house once a month…

It’s a relatively new profession, arriving in a natural progression from the older and better-publicized profession of “Horse Whisperer” from a movie that you may have giggled through and missed some of the defining characteristics.

First came the guys (and gals—it’s not a sexist industry, so relax, NOW!) who were able to read horses' minds and converse with them in a special language only they and those folks who wear aluminum colanders on their heads to keep aliens from penetrating their brainial cavities can understand. Or appreciate. Or, even speak—very few of the words in the language contain vowels. The language, when overheard by the uninitiated, sounds like someone’s reading lists of the names of Eastern European immigrants who mistakenly went to Easter Island rather than where they intended to go—Ellis Island—and were being relocated via ships provided by the humanitarian organization, Acorn, for the purpose of giving them houses they could never pay for in return for a simple thing—their vote in an upcoming election of their choice. A truly altruistic undertaking.

The next step on the journey of whisperer evolution was those folks who could speak to canines, called (cleverly!) Dog Whisperers. These talented practitioners could only speak to certain dogs, however. Namely: designer dogs. The ones that cost a boatload of money and wore precious little outfits purchased by owners who’ve spent most of their lives watching reality shows starring Paris Hilton—darling little sweaters designed by Bill Blass, intended for the harsh climate of Los Angeles and their fierce Santa Ana winds. Dog whisperers would turn up their noses if you brought in Buford, your black and tan hound for a chat! Buford doesn’t have much of a range of conversation, unless you count, “We’re low on PBR” and “Pee on your own tree!” as thoughts. No, dog whisperers commune only with French poodles and breeds like Chihuahuas (“Chihuahua” means “little rat-like yappy critter, good for barbecuing with hickory” in the Tex-Mex dialect of Odessa, Texas.

From dog whispering came the next and latest step on the evolutionary tree.

Goldfish whisperers.

It’s an all-inclusive term, encompassing more than baby carp. However, the primary source of business for practitioners remains goldfish.

Lest you think that this is a skill you, too, can learn, let me dissuade you of that notion! It’s a skill only a very few humans are blessed with. I, myself was unaware of my talents until one day I was at the home of a friend, doing research into which blends of Peruvian cannabis were the most harmful so we could warn our children, when out of the ether, I heard this voice, saying, “Don’t. Go. Near. The. Bathroom.” (It sounded exactly like Mr. Magoo during his “Blue” period. If you’re too young to remember Mr. Magoo, he was a near-sighted and highly-talented artist who sometimes painted without his glasses on and during those times went by the appellation of “Picasso.” Very famous dude, back in the “day.” Today, his art costs more than the wardrobes of many Chihuahuas.)

At first, I thought it was my research pal, “Stubby” MacIntyre, but no, Stubby was catching a nap on the couch, and besides, Stubby always sounded like Peter Graves, even when he was talking in his nod, er, sleep. (Peter Graves, in case you’re too young to remember, was the guy who taught Marshall Dillon how to fast-draw. If you don’t remember Marshall Dillon, you’re in an alternate universe and none of these references will make sense, I’m afraid. You should probably get back on your spaceship before it leaves and you’re stuck here. You’ll find Monday mornings are murder on this planet, and barely tolerable.)

At any rate, I thought I was dreaming my own self, when I heard the voice again. “Why don’t you buy me a girlfriend?” That’s when I knew it wasn’t Stubby as one thing Stubby is if he’s anything and that’s a realist. Never in a million years would Stubby want a girlfriend. If he had a girlfriend, he would run the risk of having her tell everyone where his nickname came from and that, as his best friend who knows things about Stub, is something I’m positive he doesn’t want to take place.

I tried answering the voice. “Who are you?” I said. (I never said I was a genius detective and I never claimed to write brilliant dialogue, did I?)

Surprise! The voice answered back!

“I’m over here,” he said.

“Over where?” I said. (Okay, okay! I’m gonna work on that dialogue thing. But, don’t kill the messenger. I’m just reporting here, trying to do my job!)

I found the voice. It was a lone goldfish, swimming in Stubby’s fishbowl. It was hard to see the fish from all the smoke residue coating the glass.

As it turns out, I could not only hear fish talking, but I could understand what they were saying! It was one of those moments you don’t soon forget! We chinned a bit and Fred—that’s what he told me his name was—said he was so happy I could hear him. Seems he was doing the backstroke just to kill the tedium the day before and Stubby thought he was dying and started to take him to the bathroom and do a mercy burial at sea. Fred said he realized what was happening and immediately began doing the Australian crawl and Stubby took him back. He said he didn’t know there was a human being who could understand him, but ever since he’d been repeating the same thing, over and over. “Don’t go near the bathroom.” Fred said he figured it was hopeless, but he thought his only chance at survival was the slim hope that Stubby would hear him subliminally and stay away from the bathroom.

I woke Stubby up and explained everything that had happened. Stubby’s a realist if he’s anything, and he never questioned the validity of what I was laying on him, only said, “Jesus! I’ve been holding it all day! Now I can take a whiz!.”

Not to bore you with everything that happened after that, other than to report (happily) that Stubby bought Fred a babe goldfish… only it turned out it was another guy, but even that turned out fine as it turns out Fred was a closet gay and never knew it until he saw that gorgeous dorsal fin on Betty (what Stubby had named his new fish.).

The upshot was that I saw an upside to all this in that I decided to market myself as the “Goldfish Whisperer.” I am planning on running an ad in the L.A. Times tomorrow and hire a receptionist who can type at least 25 wpm. And file.

I can provide a useful and even necessary service to mankind. When the family goes to Epcot, I can talk to their goldfish beforehand and figure out what kind of food they should tell the neighbor boy to feed him while they’re gone. I’ve been thinking. If I get really good at this stuff, I figure I can go down to the jetty at Marco Island and ask the sharks where all the pirate gold is. I’ll just promise ‘em a few homeless people to chow on. Looks like a win-win all around...

Comments welcome. Just respect the profession, please.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


(Another long post, boobies!)



Les Edgerton

(Lecture Delivered to MFA in Writing Students & Faculty at Vermont College, January 8, 1997)

(Just before I delivered my graduating lecture in the MFA program, I was amazed to see the lecture room completely full and people outside the room everywhere--clear up the stairs outside and twenty deep in the hall. A virtual sea of people. Good thing I wasn't shy... Pam Painter, one of my workshop leaders (Pam is also on the faculty at Emerson College and is the coauthor of the wonderful writer's text, WHAT IF?), came up to me and said, "Les, I've taught here since the program began and this is the single biggest turnout I've ever seen. This is amazing!" It was. I was proud and humbled at the same time. Also, the lecture pissed a few people off and that's a good thing.

Also, please note that I gave this lecture thirteen years ago. I'm curious to see if you think things have changed since then and if so, in what direction?)


Like most of you in this room, I’ve always written, always had to write. I had this thing inside me that said I had to be a writer. Notice, I said had to be. Not “wanted” or “yearned to be”. Had to be. There was no choice in the matter. God looked down and saw this little runty red thing laying in his bassinet, sucking down a PBR with a formula chaser, and He said, “I need another writer for my Grand Scheme,” and Bingo! There I was. A writer. When God Himself says you’re gonna be a writer, then, boy, you better be a writer. You play the hand you’re dealt.

I didn’t have any argument with that. I mean, who argues with God? Except, maybe Francois Camoin. But I didn’t have the advantage of being French and cynical and all that like Francois did- I didn’t even know where to begin to buy a beret or a black painter’s smock or an attitude. I mean, for Christ’s sake, I was a kid in Texas. None of those things could be gotten in Texas. If you couldn’t barbecue it or shoot it, fuck it or ride it, forget it. Not available west of the Pecos.

So I had to be a writer who grew up in Texas and my opportunities were pretty limited because of that.

Unfortunately, I was the product of a traditional American education. I say “unfortunately” because the literature I was exposed to in that system included what might be termed “safe” writers. Thackery, Milton, Shakespeare, Melville, Whitman, Steinbeck, know the list. It’s the list we’ve all been exposed to.

I tried. Believe me, I tried. But my models for writing were all wrong, in a way. They were guys like Balzac and Dickens, Henry James and Jonathon Swift. Ladies like Louisa May Alcot. Great writers, sure, but from another planet as far as I was concerned. I grew up in a bar, saw my first man killed when I was twelve - shot six feet in front of me. I was the night dispatcher for my grandmother’s cab company when that happened and had to phone the police. Nothing like that ever happened in Little Women, near as I could tell.

One by one, I tried all the genres and styles I became exposed to and one thing or the other doomed each experiment. I mean, I loved the books I read and of course I tried imitating them in style and content, but even though they were wonderful books, they weren’t about worlds I inhabited. I guess I assumed you weren’t allowed to write about the planet I happened to find myself on.

I just didn’t realize you were allowed to write about real life, at least life as I knew it. It was my first brush with censorship, although I didn’t know it. Our local public library, which was my only source of reading material just didn’t carry anything in the contemporary realism category. Looking back, I know now the head librarian hancho probably felt those kinds of books would damage my tender and developing character, so even if they had such books on their shelves, they were kept from youngsters like myself.

So, for years, I continued writing what I thought was the only kind of stuff that could get published and little by little became more and more disillusioned with writing and literature in general. Perhaps if I had gone to college at an earlier age, I might have discovered there were books out there to which I could relate, but I didn’t. I was in the Navy and then in prison, and in those kinds of environments you just don’t run across literature that’s much different than what you’d find on your average high school English recommended reading list.

I quit writing for a number of years, because, frankly, I was bored. It was by chance only that I came upon a writer who relit the literary fires.

Charles Bukowski.


Lights went off.

This guy was doing things I didn’t know you were allowed to do. He was writing about life, about real life. Nitty-gritty, down and dirty life. Lots of it was funny, most of it was sad, but it all touched me, way down deep there in that literary G-spot all writers (and readers) are forever trying to connect with.

I read another guy about the same time that turned me on fire inside as well. Kurt Vonnegut. I read this interview in the Paris Review in which he said, “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” Big spark of understanding there. Ol’ Kurt said exactly what I had been unable to articulate for a long time, ever since I started reading the “masters.” The old boys (and girls) had some good stuff going for them, but it seems like literary sphincterism had set in by the time I came along, all these deified contemporary writers were sitting around contemplating their own navels, it seemed. I was reading all this stuff about upper-middle class angst. Really jazzy stuff, like how some guy was sorrowing because all he had out of life was his Chrysler agency and ten million bucks and was searching his soul and was in this big blue funk because he hadn’t gone off with Easy Sally that time at the senior prom way back in H.S. Every book I picked up at that period seemed to have a similar theme. I just couldn’t identify. Hell, I never was able to afford a used Chrysler, let alone an entire agency, and I had run off with Easy Sally--yeah, I was that guy, the one in the leather jacket and the slicked-back hair--really! I had hair, back then--and believe me there isn’t a lot of angst to be used for material in the writing trade when you’re sitting in the trailer and Easy Sally is looking like Even Easier Sally and you don’t know where your next PBR is coming from and the TV is flashing those little tornado warnings across the bottom of the screen and you’re trying to quiet the little rascal on your knee that has your last name but the propane delivery man’s hook nose. I just knew somewhere deep inside my bones I couldn’t fake writing a whole, entire book out of what it meant to be the Executive Vice President in Charge of Sales for Southeastern Florida for the Tidy Bowl Corp and sorrowing over the lost babe of his childhood or the sad fact that he’d chucked it all and gone off to paint Tahitian sunsets. Or that his wife had. Crap like that.

All of a sudden, here’s this guy Bukowski writing about shit I knew about. About whores and hustlers, winos and fathead bosses who were always worried their wives would go to bed with the help so they got their mad out in the open right away.

I picked up a book of his, a collection of stories called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town and Other Stories.” I loved those other stories. It was like sitting down with a homeboy or your rap partner in the joint and swapping lies. Better yet; it was entertaining. All of a sudden, I remembered why I had first started writing. To make someone laugh. Or cry. Learn something about another human being. Just feel something. Feel what I was feeling. Here was this guy, Bukowski, and he was doing exactly what I’d always wanted to do.

Bukowski’s stories weren’t about middle-aged English professors who were all in a fret because their wives no longer get excited sitting around listening to them conjugate French verbs and deducing that their lives, the meaningful portions of them, anyway, were over. Some of these guys, it seemed, took 400 pages to figure out why the major babe in their life was leaving. They were bored, Jack.
* * *
I know this was billed as a lecture on censorship and you may be wondering where the censorship angle comes in. Well, where it comes in is that not only were folks like Bukowski not being published by so-called “respectable” presses in this country, but other books by writers like him were not generally available to people like myself. They weren’t talked about by our English teachers, they weren’t on the shelves of our hometown libraries--or if they were, they were kept from our view and knowledge. In other words, there was a form of censorship operating that kept this kind of book from me and others that exists today and it is this and other forms of censorship, overt and covert, that I’ll get to, by and by. I want to show what it is about Bukowski that turned my whole life around. Well, not my life--I mean, I still have to mow the grass on Saturday and take out the garbage--but this story saved my writing life, which is, after all, the only life worth having.

The story was The Fiend. You may have read it. If you did, you either became a fan of Bukowski’s or you hated his guts. Personally, I became a fan.

Basically, it’s a story about a middle-aged guy named Martin Blanchard, who’s been defeated by alcohol. He’s lost his wife and family, two wives, two families, actually, his job, everything. Twenty-seven jobs he’s gone through. That’s a lot of jobs. This guy’s just your basic average slob who can’t leave the juice alone. He’s reduced to living in this squalid apartment, four flights up, and drinking wine. His only source of income are his unemployment checks and money left in parking meters. Badly educated, yet he listens to classical music, preferring Mahler.

He begins to notice this little girl outside playing. He begins to notice she has on these interesting panties...and... you guessed it, he finds himself masturbating. Afterward, he feels relief. It’s out of my mind, he thinks after he gets off. I’m free again. Only, he’s not. It’s just the beginning of a new obsession, a perversion. For the first time in months, perhaps years, he has an interest. It repels him, but he can’t resist it, either.

At first, he thinks it’s just something weird that overtook him and now it’s out of his system, but after he drinks his last bottle of wine, he sees the little girl outside in the street and begins to get hard again. He decides to go to the store to replenish his wine supply and as he walks outside he notices the little girl and the two little boys have gone into the garage across the street. He finds himself walking into the garage behind them and shutting the doors.

He then proceeds to rape the little girl, in very graphic detail. When you read this part, if it doesn’t make you sick, you’re probably beyond the kind of help counseling can give you at this late date. All the while he’s committing this heinous act, the two boys are asking him questions. They express genuine curiosity and don’t seem to be overly-frightened, exhibiting more of an amoral attitude than anything. Bukowski does something quite skillful here. Instead of having the two young boys be scared shitless, he shows them to be mainly curious about what Martin is doing to their friend. These kids are witnessing something pretty horrible, but then they’re just kids, and there’s an amoral innocence about their reaction that blurs the morality. Raping a child is without doubt a truly horrible crime, with no redemption in such an act, but since it’s hard to wholeheartedly condemn the two boys the reader is moved into an area of moral ambiguity that creates a kind of complicity with the boys. The reader then becomes, like the boys, a kind of voyeur to Martin’s act. This also helps humanize the monster Martin is, inasmuch as any such person could be seen as having human qualities.

The kicker for me in this story was a line a little earlier on in the story, as Martin is kissing the child, just before he rapes her, and the narrator says, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells--one hers, the other his.” When I read this line, it was as if I’d been struck by literary lightening.

What I have always thought good writing was about was people, all kinds of folks, and what made writing about people good, was that it showed you something about them. Something you didn’t know or were confused on or were ignorant of. And not just politically correct folks, either. In fact, preferably not politically correct folks. Is there a more boring bunch in the Solar System? You see, I was in jail, I was an alcoholic, I was a drug user, I was all those kinds of dudes that aren’t allowed to buy a house in Westchester County--well, that’s not right, exactly, according to my New York friends, most of the citizens in Westchester fit that description--but you know what I mean--and I knew they weren’t all weak or stupid or worthless. They didn’t all start out that way. Something happened along the road. Some of the most intellectual conversations I’ve ever heard were in soup kitchens. I met a guy once who used to teach physics at M.I.T., one fine Thanksgiving Day at the free turkey blowout the Salvation Army was hosting in Baltimore. This guy could make hydrogen bombs in his sleep and probably cure cancer if he got a year off the sauce.

Anyway, back to Bukowski and his story about the child rapist. Bukowski doesn’t excuse this motherfucker, nor make him out to be anything but the monster he is, but he does show us something about the guy which we probably wouldn’t have known in any other way. He shows us there’s a human being running around inside the guy someplace. A somewhat troubled human being, but one of us at any rate. And this is what literature should be all about. Showing us to one another. The good, the bad, the ugly as well as the downright perverts.

All his stuff isn’t good. In fact, a lot of it stinks. Kind of masturbation-on-the-page type of stuff. He considers himself a genius--well, he is, actually--and Bukowski seems to have thought that everything he had a thought on was important because it came out of his brain. Not true. That virtually everything he wrote got printed may not have been his fault, but more the fault of publishers who bought into his self-created myth.

Almost any other writer that this same story would have occurred to, would have taken the point of view of anyone but Martin’s. The little girl herself, the boys, the cops who came and arrested him, the parents. An adult who discovered the crime. A fly on the wall. To write this kind of story from the pov of the perp, in my mind, is the stuff of literary courage. It’s very dangerous stuff. It you don’t bring it off, it almost makes the writer appear as if he excused Martin for what he’s done, which would have made Bukowski an even bigger monster than his character. What he’s been able to do is present Martin exactly as he is - a hideous member of the human race...but amazingly, yet...still a member of humanity. It’s interesting in one respect, too, in that Bukowski wrote this story in the third person, while most of his other writing is first person and confessional autobiography. It looks as if he wanted to make sure readers didn’t confuse the narrator with the author, which, if he did, renders him just a little less courageous. I don’t want to think of him that way, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

With that one little sentence, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells--one hers, the other his.”, Bukowski gives us an insight that is deeply profound. And that, in my opinion, is what great writing is all about.

It takes enormous courage to be able to write about the kinds of people Bukowski does. Readers, even intelligent readers, tend to associate the writer with the narrator. In my first semester, I wrote a story about a character who was a criminal, and I had the concern that the reader of the piece would want to know if I had been a criminal myself. I addressed my concern to my first adviser here, Phyllis Barber, and she said, “An intelligent reader will never ask if a piece of writing is autobiographical, so don’t worry about it.” Well, Phyllis meant well, and in a perfect world, this would be true, but believe me, even very intelligent readers at least wonder if the stuff they’re reading comes from the writer’s own experience and even the brightest of readers will wonder if very negative or dark stuff is what the author really thinks and feels. It’s just human nature. It’d be nice if readers accepted work labeled as fiction as just that--fiction--but the truth of the matter is, there’s something of the prurient in all of us that makes us hope that the stuff on the page--especially the dark, forbidden stuff--is derived from the real experience of its creator. It gives most of us a delicious little shiver of horror to be standing this close to depravity without actually having to get any of it on ourselves. There is some part of almost all our souls that craves the darker side of life. We are alternately titillated and repulsed by immoral behavior and I think that is the reason books and stories and movies about bad guys are so well-attended. We can satisfy this baser part of our souls in a safe and acceptable manner, so long as they get put in their places in the end.

Most of my own writing output has been about such people, and without exception, those who read it and are acquainted with me, will come up and ask, in almost an embarrassed fashion, “Was that yourself you were writing about?” Up until just recently, I would usually answer that, uh, no, I just know some people like that. I’ve usually taken the coward’s way out. Just recently, I’ve begun to admit that, yes, I’ve done many of the things that show up in my stories. I’ve been a criminal, done time, sold drugs, been involved in various sexual aberrations, broken many and diverse laws. I don’t do them any more--well, not as many--I’d be room temperature by now if I’d continued doing some of the things I used to. And, I’m a different person than I was when I was involved in those things. That’s why I’ve usually lied when asked if the author of my work was the same as the narrator. Most folks, no matter what they say, will assume you’re still that kind of person and that kind of reputation will keep you from getting some of the nicer rewards of our civilization.

The thing that writers like Bukowski represent to me is truth. As a group of animals endowed with a superior intellect--as compared with, say, monkeys or tse-flies--and if we do indeed have this intelligence, then what we ought to be about primarily is the pursuit of truth. This is what education should be about, although sadly, it seems not to be the Holy Grail it once was. Back in “my day” which was the nineteen-sixties, that’s what a lot of us were interested in. Truth. We were into toppling institutions. Institutions we felt were based on lies. And, I guess that’s why writers like Bukowski appeal to me so much. The one thing we weren’t being in the sixties was safe. Although, that’s not entirely true. There was a large contingent of folks that were concerned mainly with making sure they didn’t go to Vietnam and get shot at. A lot of the hyperbole in that era was, in fact, centered around changing a system that could put one’s physical unit in jeopardy. But for many of us, especially those of us who had been in the military at the time, the things we were involved in were anything but safe. That’s what seems to be missing today. Most of the stuff I pick up and read, while quite good in many instances, is for the most part, safe writing. The mood has changed, as it always does, but the direction it has moved to is a dangerous one.

I’m speaking here of the phenomenon sweeping through this country referred to as being “politically correct.” Like many grandiose ideas, there is a noble intent at the center of this outlook, but also like many other popular notions, it has been perverted until it is the antithesis of what it originated as. Being PC nowadays amounts to out and out censorship in my opinion. For every writer like Bukowski, William Vollmann, and David Sedaris who breaks through and becomes a cult hero, there are hundreds of writers who are being stifled, vilified, and destroyed, simply because they do not preach the party’s message nor do they conform to the parameters set up by the PC folks who seem to be in charge. Too often they are stifling themselves by trying to placate society. What used to be considered simply bad taste nowadays takes on a more sinister connotation and that is dangerous if we value freedom of thought and value the time-honored tradition of the debate of ideas which is the only viable method for advancing knowledge and understanding.

Plato himself spoke about political correctness in The Republic, when he said:
“Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only.” How about that.

In another of Bukowski’s stories, 3 Chickens, he continually beats his girlfriend. Definitely not a PC story. Here are some direct quotes from the story:

once she was screaming these insanities from the fold-down bed in our apartment. I begged her to stop, but she wouldn’t. finally, I just walked over, lifted up the bed with her in it and folded everything into the wall.

then I went over and sat down and listened to her scream.

but she kept screaming so I walked over and pulled the bed out of the wall again there she lay, holding her arm, claiming it was broken.

now, another time she angered me and I slapped her but it was across the mouth and it broke her false teeth.

I was surprised that it broke her false teeth and I went out and got this super cement glue and I glued her teeth together for her. it worked for awhile and then one night as she sat there drinking her wine she suddenly had a mouthful of broken teeth.

the wine was so strong it undid the glue. it was disgusting. we had to get her some new teeth, how we did it, I don’t quite remember, but she claimed they made her look like a horse.


the bar was full, every seat taken. I lifted my hand. I swung. I backhanded her off that god damned stool. she fell to the floor and screamed.

There are more abusive incidents in the story. This is horrible stuff to anyone--and I imagine that’s most of us--who is interested in consciousness-raising about spouse abuse and battering--but there is a value to being exposed to this kind of material. How else can we understand anything about violence unless we observe and portray it accurately? It exists, just as surely as serial killers exist, and how can one combat evil unless one understands its nature?

Gordon Weaver, who was on the faculty here at Vermont until a few years ago, told me in an interview, that, “If our special interest, as writers and/or editors, is the precise use of language toward the end of a viable perception of and effect on reality, we may argue there is some virtue implicit in any utterance (written or oral) that confronts the consensus of any gathering.” He gives an example. “There is a cost that will be paid by all concerned if one tells a Polack joke in the presence of Poles, but I contend the cost is greater if one stifles or sanitizes the anecdote.” Gordon has something here, I think. Weaver also told me that academicians are perhaps the newest bullies on the censorship block and perhaps the most dangerous of all. He stated that, “There is a greater danger, it seems to me, when the censors come from the ranks of the presumably ‘enlightened’. It is not surprising that a number of college and university communities nurture factions who wish to control free speech; it is unsettling when more sophisticated citizens (faculty) add their clout to movements desiring to police our utterance in the interests of what minority or another deems politically incorrect.”

Whether or not you agree with writers like Bukowski, or Weaver for that matter, is unimportant. What is important is that they and others of diverse opinions have a forum to be heard and read. That forum is disintegrating under the onslaught of those who wish to stifle speech that disagrees with theirs. Truth is in danger of being extinguished, and it may fall to us who write to be the last vanguard of free speech. That is why writers such as Bukowski need to be published and need to be read by establishment presses and before they’re dead. There are some of us who feel we are plunging back into a Dark Age. History would confirm that to be so. After nearly every period of enlightenment, anarchy prevails again for awhile, and this is what I see us heading toward, as a nation and as a world.

It is the nature of groups to want to stifle opposing viewpoints. In this country, supposedly the land of free speech, attempts at suppression have been with us since the adoption of the First Amendment, but the preponderance of that type of activity has been traditionally borne by extremists of the far right and far left political and societal spectrum. Those with the hot fire of righteousness in their bellies have been the usual standard-bearers for the termination of ideas contrary to their agenda and such should probably be expected.

Gordon Weaver told me that although he dislikes boorish and bigoted expressions, he sees a greater danger in disallowing their spokesmen an opportunity to be heard.

“The censors will always be with us,” he said. “It is the nature of both institutions and individuals to desire the silence of those they wish to suppress. Institutions with political power or ambitions for same (government, churches, schools) can probably be fended off--as they have been in modern times at least--by organized responses. The American Civil Liberties Union has a pretty good record in this regard. Simple crackpots (racists, militant feminists, and other self-appointed arbiters of community morality) seem to wither away if studiously ignored.”

Repression comes in many forms, not always overt. Kathleen M. Sullivan, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, in talking about the censorship issue as it affects funding for the NEA, says of the PC issue, “An artist who receives a check in the mail (from the NEA) with a ‘hit list’ of forbidden ideas attached will forego too much valuable and innovative expression for fear it will come too close to the line. As (US Supreme Court) Justice Thurgood Marshall once put it, the problem with a ‘sword of Damocles is that it hangs--not that it drops.’”

Fred Grandy, former actor on the Love Boat and now a Congressman from Iowa, says, “I am no artist and have 10 years on TV to prove it. But I have spent enough of my life around creative minds to know that you cannot have art without risk. You cannot write language proscribing the human imagination that will not turn artists away in droves.”

Speaking of Congress in terms that could be applied to college professors and publishers as well, Grandy said, “Trying to eliminate smut by allowing Congress to tell America what is and is not artistic is as misguided as attempting to legislate patriotism by amending the Constitution to prohibit flag burning.”

And publishers. How do they, as deciders of what news is fit to print, view the censorship debate? Reactions range from the moderately perplexed to the horrified doomsayers.

Robert McDowell, who publishes the Story Line Press, wrote an opinion piece for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, which perhaps synopsizes the publisher’s view. “The debate pits a democratic majority believing in our First Amendment rights of free speech against a well-financed and well-organized minority extolling the virtues of all that is wholesome and the government’s right to control the subject matter of the books we read, the music we enjoy, the paintings and plays we experience.” McDowell calls Senator Jesse Helms and other individuals and groups’ efforts to censor materials funded by the NEA, “the most severe legalized censorship in this country since the McCarthy era,” and labels such censorship efforts as being “shameful attacks on free speech and the artist’s right to represent the truth as he or she perceives it.”

Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, Larry McMurtry, in a Washington Post article, accused the Jesse Helms-led forces of attempting to “eliminate all sex from American art if they can. Rembrandt’s sketch of a fully clothed heterosexual couple attempting the missionary position behind a bush would likely not be thought fund-worthy by Helms, whose stated preferences would limit us to snow scenes, pictures of bird dogs or romantic landscapes involving, if possible, humble tobacco farms.” McMurtry goes on, “The narrative as these individuals see it, in their determination to tell Americans what they need and don’t need in the way of publicly funded art, is rigidly chaste: no public money for anything with sex in it! (They may claim that (they) only want to withhold public money from art that depicts or describes ‘wrong’ sex-- i.e., homeoerotic (no grants to Leonardo or Proust!) sadomasochistic (no Westerns, no film noir), exploitive of children (no Lolita, no Lewis Carroll), but it’s clear that they really mean to eliminate all sex from American art if they can.”

Kathleen Sullivan puts it even more succinctly, when she says, “A free society can have no official orthodoxy in art any more than in religion or politics. And in a free society, such orthodoxy can no more be purchased by power of the purse than compelled by power of the sword.”

Just a couple of years ago, Stanley Banks, Kansas City playwright and poet, offered the balance of such cost: “We will begin to see dull art which has no freshness of vision. Certain points of view will be silenced. When that happens our society will be seriously threatened without a bomb being blasted.” He warns us not to “call for laws to censor artists who challenge our consciousness in ways that might be uncomfortable, irritating, risqué, etc. For those who don’t want to see or hear or read about acts or points of view contrary to their own, he advises, “simply don’t look, buy it or let the kids have access to it!”

Banks’ “dull art which has no freshness of vision” is already upon us. It has always been with us, since censorship in one form or another has always been around--it has only increased mightily in the past few years. The result is art which is becoming blander and blander, much resembling the “art” that was allowed to surface in totalitarian governments such as the USSR of a few years past and in many other governments. America is not yet at that stage, but if current developments continue in publishing, in the university, and in government, we are not far from achieving total censorship, imposed by the group in control.

What scares me the most is that universities should be the bastion of free thought but the state of the matter is that free debate of ideas is rapidly disappearing from the college campus. As more and more writers come out of university settings and are being influenced by teachers with a decided political bent, the writing they produce becomes more and more insipid. These same writers take over the litmags and editor positions at publishing houses and impose their political beliefs on those who submit, publishing only those that can pass the PC test in the content of their creative material. As Kurt Vonnegut said in a quote cited earlier, “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” Well, it’s in great danger of doing just that. It’s about halfway up the anus.

In interviewing folks for an article I wrote on censorship for Circle K Magazine, I was referred to the brother-in-law of a friend of mine, an Australian, who was teaching physics and doing research at one of America’s leading universities which I cannot name because I’ve promised him anonymity. This man says, “I think it’s a myth that censorship doesn’t exist on college campuses. I believe universities should be places where anybody can say whatever they want and everybody should be very tolerant, but it’s just not true. Students are punished for saying certain things. You could say whatever you wanted at the University of Sydney (where he’s from). They were much more tolerant there. In student publications there was much less concern about libel, for example. The litigation aspect puts a lot of pressure on what ideas you can express.” This man only agreed to give me his views when I swore several times I wouldn’t use his name or even tell what university he was at, for fear of losing his job. It’s a sad day when a person from another country is allowed a greater freedom of expression there than in his adopted country which professes to be the freest nation on earth.

This professor went on to say, “I think there’s more of a tradition in European-style universities for freedom of speech--that that’s what universities are for. In America, the impression I get is that universities are for other purposes...for training professionals and for football games. It’s not about intellectual freedom. You pay us (educators) your money and you want something at the end. You want a guaranteed elite job in society, and it has nothing to do with expanding your mind. You’re buying a product. It’s more of a consumer orientation.”

He adds, “The government is trying to censor more and more science that they are actually paying for. For example, on sensitive subjects as global warming, the government wants to see research results first, because of the possible political consequences.”

Americans should be ashamed when they have prided themselves on theirs being the leading example of a free society, when others in the world community may be seeing us very differently, as evidenced by my anonymous critic and source.

Anita Manning, writing for USA Today, says that the issue is different in colleges than it is in the lower levels of education.

“In K through 12, there is a school board or some sort of governing body that chooses what books are included in the curriculum...whereas in the college setting, the individual professor or instructor chooses the books for that course and students choose whether or not to take the course, leading to entire different issues.”

In June, 1992, Brenda Suderman, acting media relations officer for The Bulletin, the student newspaper at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, reported that the university deleted about 170 files containing material on sexual bondage and pornography from the Internet computer system the university subscribes to. Gerry Miller, Director of Computer Services, made the decision in consultation with Terry Falconer, Vice-President (administration), saying the material was removed because “we felt they (the deleted files) didn’t support the mission of the university and we felt they were objectionable.”

Alisa Smith, co-editor of The Marlet, the student newspaper at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, published what university officials deemed objectionable material as exampled by a lesbian, gay, bisexual issue put out in 1991 which featured male and female genitalia on the cover. About 2,000 copies were thrown into dumpsters by campus traffic and security functionaries upon administrative order. Even so, Smith feels the press is becoming a bit freer. (Yeah, well--go figure…)

She says, “The mainstream media is covering a lot of issues that only the alternative press used to cover. I suppose the backlash against political correctness is sort of an attempted censorship, like trying to silence people, but not by directly shutting down their newspapers. (Universities) are trying to shut down thought, rather than newspapers. All the articles that you see are about how PC’s have sort of gotten a grip on society and how people can’t say what they want anymore. I guess it’s like a left-wing phenomenon.”

Let money talk, though, and censorship takes on yet another clever form: the economic kind.

“Personally,” says Smith, “I think the biggest form of censorship right now is the fact that the economy is so bad, making advertising really hard to come by. A lot of papers used to have a fairly idealistic boycott list for advertising that they wouldn’t use because of things those advertisers were funding--like nuclear systems contracting or because they were pro-apartheid in South Africa. Editors are finding they can’t make ideological choices any more because of monetary pressure. If you’re really dependent on advertising dollars, you have to basically write the kinds of things that won’t offend your advertisers and don’t disagree with their stances.”

This latter statement seems to contrast with her earlier one that “the press is becoming a bit freer,” and is perhaps a good example of why censorship is unnecessary. If you allow anyone to talk freely long enough, they may provide sufficient evidence by their own words that they should not be taken that seriously when giving us the benefit of their opinion.

Fearful of bad publicity during stressful economic times, it is not so surprising college and university administrations are increasingly acting to suppress anything that might bring adverse publicity to their campuses. What is surprising is that faculty members are increasingly joining in, even in the supercharged Politically Correct environment that has permeated most higher-education campuses in one way or another.

A 1992 incident at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, exemplifies the debate and poses difficult and perplexing arguments for both sides of the issue.

A cartoon ran in the student newspaper, the Nicholls Worth, poking fun at three black singers in a rap group that had performed on campus. Black students who were offended, protested by burning about 150 copies of the paper publicly. Their complaint was that they were greatly upset by the exaggerated features of the cartoon figures and the stereotypes it reinforced. Eric Knott, president of a black fraternity denied that the protest had anything to do with being politically correct.

“I’m not one to hide behind racism and claim that everything in society is racist, (but) the cartoon clearly degraded the black race,” Knott says.

Marty Authement, student editor of the paper, said that he “used poor judgment” in allowing the cartoon to be published, but was also concerned that “political correctness is limiting what journalists can do. These days you have to be more sensitive than you usually would be. If you live by the strict law of political correctness, there’s not much left.”

I had a very jarring and dismaying experience with PCism with my own novel THE DEATH OF TARPONS. A few years before it actually got published, a regional publisher in the Southwest wanted to buy it for a $10,000 advance. A very few months before this offer, I was sleeping on a garage floor in California and eating out of a Bob’s Big Boy dumpster, so the money he offered had the same value as a million dollars to me. I almost signed the contract until the publisher said, “Well, we have to change a lot of this. There’s stuff in here that might make certain folks upset.” He gave as an example a scene in which the boy’s father whips him with a live king snake. This might offend the snake lovers, he said. That’s got to be what?--seven or eight in the U.S.A.? Not counting, of course, the folks who use them in church services. He cited about twenty other scenes I’d have to change because they might offend this person or that. Reluctantly, I withdrew the book, not knowing if it would ever be published, and indeed, it was another five years before I found a publisher who wasn’t as concerned about snake lovers’ feelings and was more concerned with putting out a book that she felt had literary value.

Mind you, this was several years before the wholesale PC attitude took over the country. This asshole--and I don’t excuse myself from the term--was merely the forerunner of what is a terrifying fact of life today.

If you believe this to be the ravings of a paranoid mind, consider these facts:

A record 348 incidents of attempted censorship occurred in the 1991-92 school year, according to The American Way, a liberal watchdog group. That’s an increase of 20% over the previous high, a figure they claim poses an alarming advance in assaults on a basic Constitutional right--a right almost universally assured in most of the free world.

The Literary Network, a project jointly administered by Poets&Writers, Inc. and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses report over 6,000 attempts to remove books from shelves in American libraries in the 1980’s and ‘the number of incidents is noticeably on the rise.”

Concerned Women for America, a conservative, pro-family group asserts all censorship attempts are not necessarily bad. Caia Mockaitis, speaking for the organization, says the issue is one of selection, not censorship, many times, in that “there are some materials that are appropriate for kids and some that are not,” no matter what adults’ political bias, liberal or conservative.

Mockaitis has plenty of like-minded supporters. Censorship attempts at banning outright or restricting access to books and magazines in secondary school libraries were successful in nearly one-half of instances between 1987 and 1990, reports a University of Wisconsin survey of 6,600 schools. Challenged publications were removed 26 percent of the time, restricted by age or grade level 22 percent of the time, and more likely to occur at small schools.

The book challenged most? Judy Blume’s Forever, a story of a teenage girl who loses her virginity. Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue and Rolling Stone were the most-challenged magazines at secondary schools, according to USA Today, Jan. 20, 1992.

Consider this item: “Pornography Victims Compensation Act” was a bill on the U.S. Senate floor that would enable victims of sex crimes to file civil suits in an effort to recover damages from producers and distributors of obscene materials (including publishers, wholesalers, and booksellers) if the victims can show that the materials “caused” the crimes. This “third-party liability” bill is a way of imposing censorship through a back door. This item was reported by the American Booksellers Association.

Here’s another: In May, 1990, Ferris Alexander, operator of a chain of bookstores, theaters and video stores in the Minneapolis area, was found guilty of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) obscenity forfeiture law. His crime? Selling four magazines and three videotapes found to be obscene and valued at less than $200. Alexander was sentenced to six years in prison, fined $200,000 and forfeited a $25 million dollar business. This was reported by The Media Coalition.

Here’s another. Three editors of the Ohio State University student newspaper, The Lantern, resign when members of the journalism faculty issue a policy statement that the faculty advisor had the authority to review articles for libel before they were published. This story from The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 1992.

Censorship is everywhere and rising in attempts and more frightening, in successful attempts.

Free speech advocate Nat Hentoff, the author of Free Speech for Me - But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other from HarperCollins, feels that in too many cases, publishers, school boards and principals remove or change material for students rather than face the wrath of militant parent groups. Seeing authorities suppress ideas in some cases, and being in a school in which books keep disappearing, gives a graphic lesson to students, Hentoff feels, in that they may have doubts that theirs is a country of intellectual freedom.

And it appears it is special-interest groups that are behind these efforts and that the majority of Americans are against censorship. A survey conducted by Louis Harris for the American Council for the Arts and sponsored by Phillip Morris Companies, Inc., in February, 1992, polled 1,500 adults over the age of 18 by telephone. Part of the findings were that 91% felt it important for school children to be exposed to and participate in the arts; 67% felt learning about the arts as important as learning about history and geography, 60% say as important as math and science, and 53% believe the arts are important as learning to read and write. It’s evident that it’s a small but vocal and politically-powerful group of minorities who are succeeding in censorship activities and these groups emerge from both ends of the political and societal spectrum.

Virtually every publisher in the country, from the smallest litmag to the largest publishing conglomerate, is terrified of antagonizing any reader whatsoever, unless the person offended is not part of a highly-organized, highly-vocal political group. This includes both right and left-wingers. It seems everybody in America has now organized, has a group with a slogan, a newsletter, a home page on the Internet, and a secret handshake. The battle is being waged over who gets ultimate control of the presses. And it doesn’t matter who wins. We all lose. What we lose is freedom of expression. And once that happens, we are done as a free society. I go to Gordon Weaver once again, who said it as best as it can be said. “Censorship from without is bad for the language, bad for those who speak or write it; self-imposed censorship, whatever the motive is worse. If you won’t say what you think, you run the risk of losing the powers of both speech and thought. I suspect we’ll be safe just as long as we refuse to accept censorship for anyone.”

Again, I quote Gordon Weaver for perhaps the best take on the situation. “If the king is naked, we’re all (including the king) better served if someone says so.”

Well, the king is indeed, naked. The only problem is not enough of us are saying so, preferring to remain safe, keep our jobs, get our material published and so we go on, giving silent tacit agreement to what is happening. This is an understandable position for many in our society; it is unforgivable for writers, at least in my opinion. Writers should be like the canaries in coal mines, the warning system that things are not right and that danger looms. As a group, we have many of us become complacent, intent only on saving our professional selves at the expense of freedom of thought. Maybe we understand too well that although the canary in the coal mine provided a valuable service, in doing so he ended up room temperature.

I cannot count the numbers of instances acquaintances of mine have said to me, “I cannot say certain things I believe in, to my class, my teachers, my peers, or in my writing, because I would lose my job or be censured or not see my work in print, etc. What’s wrong with us? What kinds of writers are we producing in this country that are fearful to take stands on issues they believe fervently about simply because they risk disapproval? What kind of chickenshit writer is it that the little squiggles he or she puts down on paper consist of half-truths and integrity that is compromised regularly? We are surrendering something precious more by what we don’t do than what we do. Are we so enamored of safety and comfort that we are willing to give up the freedom to express ourselves honestly? It seems that we are. It is a growing malaise that is sweeping the country and I hold that the only ones that can stem the tide are the writers in our society. But where are they?

Some are out there. There are a few. William Vollmann. Brian Everson. Michael Tolkin. Bukowski. There are others that we’ll never know of because they can’t find a forum. There need to be a lot more such voices. What is really needed is for establishment forums to begin looking more at the quality of the writing than the content. To give an ear to voices that refuse to be influenced by a job, a smile from an empty-headed bureaucrat, publication in a white-bread magazine or by a bottom-line mentality of a publishing conglomerate.

I think back to when I began writing as a grade school kid. One of the things I used to do was write humorous sketches of some of the more terrifying individuals I faced daily. Individuals like the bullies I and others faced, from the schoolyard rowdy to the teacher who thought her job was to intimidate her class into submission. I’d show these “pieces” to friends, they’d be passed around, and in some cases, public opinion ended those offenders’ bullying careers. Nobody likes to push someone around if he’s going to get laughed at by everyone else. It just plain takes all the power out of it, not to mention the fun.

The problem today is, the bullies have taken over not only the schoolyard, but the university, the Congress, and the publishing house. Many of us in this room became writers because of a bully somewhere in their past. Maybe it was another kid, or a group of kids, or maybe it was a parent or a teacher. We found we could effectively combat these kinds of folks by the written word. If we were physically weaker we possessed a strength that was virtually indefensible against. The power of ideas, expressed upon the page and in open debate. Do we want to give up our only weapon against tyranny? I hope not.

And by the way--those writers I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture--Whitman, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Thackery, Milton, Shakespeare, Melville, Alcott--and that I described as “safe”, were anything but that when they were being published. They were almost all rogues in their time and were, by turns, either censored, vilified, viewed with shock, attacked by those in power, or even unpublished in their lifetimes because of the content of their writing. It is only after many years had passed and the political climate had shifted, that the original perceptions of them and their work were considered nonthreatening enough to exist in our libraries and schools. Although many of them are still censored, even today. Steinbeck routinely makes his appearance at book-burnings and other censorship attempts, along with Faulkner, Whitman and even Shakespeare. They were “safe” to me when I read them, simply because I was reading them in a different, more removed era, but in fact, those writers who have become what we call “immortal” have largely been the risk-takers of their time, who wrote in line with their conscience, rather than the political and social mores of their period. Many of them endured great distress because what they were writing was politically incorrect at the time. The thing was, there were then and still are now, publishers who gave them a forum, often at great risk, and there were those who read them, and so the world has been enriched through those individuals’ courage. Knowing this, it would be easy to say, “well, hey, those folks got published and there are those today being published who don’t parrot the party line, so what’s the problem? The problem is, once we as writers and future editors and educators begin to think like that, complacency sets in and we get the attitude to “let someone else worry about it” and that’s when our freedom of expression becomes seriously eroded and in danger of disappearing. Freedom of expression is a value that must be continuously fought for, over and over. That war is never finished unless one side or the other lays down its arms. As part of this generation of writers, it is our duty to take up the battle.

There is another point of view that says that it’s not the job of an artist to express a viewpoint or an opinion at all. While I respect the right of those who feel that way, I disagree. Indeed, is it possible to find a writer of note who hasn’t expressed his point-of-view, politically, through his or her writings? What else was Steinbeck commenting on in “The Grapes of Wrath” if not a political system? Perhaps he didn’t stand on a stump and proclaim to the world his political views but they sure are right there in his fiction. There are countless others I could give as examples and I’m sure you have your own list. Some artists feel it is their job to present a vision of the world, not a political opinion. I don’t see a difference. It seems to be a matter of semantics. What is a “vision of the world” except a political opinion? Or you might call such a view a “philosophy” but again, philosophies (in my opinion) are nothing but political ideologies dressed up in a tuxedo. I believe it all comes down to politics and I mean politics in the purest sense, as in I want mine and you want yours and I’d kill you for yours if we hadn’t agreed that we’re civilized and have figured out a way for both of us to keep our stuff and not worry about the other taking it. And, for me, that’s what censorship finally boils down to. It’s refuting the principle that I can have mine and you can’t take it and you can have yours and I can’t have it either. You can just substitute the word “opinion” for a particular possession. What I object to is the closing down of forums for all but those who agree with the body politic, not in an overt way but by more subtle and insidious means.

Thank you for your time. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. I hope you’ll read some Charles Bukowski, some William Vollmann. I don’t even care if you don’t like or agree with them. In fact, the only way this little talk will be a success if people go out of here arguing with each other. Personally, I’m like Robert Duvall in The Apocalypse Now - I love the smell of a good argument in the morning. I’d like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes. In the preface to the infamous Story of O, Jean Paulhan wrote, “Dangerous books are those that restore us to our natural state of danger.”