Thursday, February 23, 2017

“And the River Ran Red” debut performance.

Not long ago, singer and songwriter extraordinaire Brenn Hill debuted “And the River Ran Red,” a song I had the good fortune to help write. As I’ve said before, writing a song is a strange undertaking for me, as I couldn’t carry a tune with a packsaddle.
But, thanks to Brenn, I think it’s a damn fine song.
Based on the tragic events of the 1863 Bear River Massacre, where US Army troops slaughtered some 300 Shoshoni men, women, and children, the song adds to a list of my writings on the subject, which include a nonfiction book, Massacre at Bear River: First, Worst, Forgotten and a chapter in The Lost Frontier: Momentous Moments in the Old West You May Have Missed, as well as some short stories and poems.
Brenn Hill performed the song for the first time at the American West Heritage Center in Cache Valley, just 36 miles from the massacre site, on 10 and 11 April 2017. See a cell phone video of the performance on YouTube.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 6

John McPhee is a name you will see here again. He is, without doubt, one of my favorite writers. Some of his books are collections of articles he wrote for The New Yorker, others address a single subject.
No matter the subject, if McPhee writes it I will read it.
Witness the fact that I have read his books (and many others) on raising oranges, building birch-bark canoes, Bill Bradley, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, the Swiss Army, cargo ships, and the geology of North America—subjects I have no particular interest in but enjoyed immensely reading about.
Among my favorite McPhee books is Rising from the Plains, one of five volumes that make up his Pulitzer Prize-winning compilation, Annals of the Former World.
The book is about the geology of Wyoming, as seen through McPhee’s travels with geologist David Love. You’ll find that reading about rocks can be fascinating.  But Love is also a Wyoming boy who grew up on an isolated ranch when the West was still wild, and those stories are just as engaging as the tales about traces of the Triassic on the landscape.

This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West.

So begins Rising from the Plains by John McPhee. How can you not read on?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 36: Plan Your Plot, Organize Your Outline.

Many fiction writers plan out a story in great detail before writing the first word. And many writing instructors teach the hows and whys of plotting and outlining. They swear by the process, claiming it provides discipline and keeps you on track. If you plot and outline well enough, you’re less likely to wander off on tangents or let the story ramble down paths not of your choosing.
But it’s not the only way to write. And, for some, not the best way to write. While every story starts somewhere, and the writer likely has some idea about where it’s going, many writers know little else about it. They like to let the story find itself, rely on the characters to drive the action, and allow causes to create their own effects and conflicts to reach their own resolution.
That’s the way I like to write. In fact, as I write this I am about 50,000 words into a novel, and while the story and characters have decided what happens next (as they have, for the most part, all along the way), what follows after that is pretty hazy, and where it will end is unknown—at least to me.
There’s a quotation by Ray Bradbury that sums up this approach to writing a book: “Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”
E.L. Doctorow said something similar: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I trust that, at some point, the fog will clear and book I am working on will eventually reach its destination.

P.S. It did.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Let’s start the conversation.

Not long ago, within my not-so-distant memory, people used to talk. We’d chat. We’d have discussions. And, curse of curses, hoity-toity folks would dialogue.
Now, we have “conversations.”
We used to be asked for our two cents’ worth. Now, we’re asked to “join the conversation.” Reporters used to conduct interviews. Now, they engage in “conversations” with their subjects. Radio talk show hosts used to take calls. Now, they “invite another voice into the conversation.” Internet discussion groups used to have forums. Now, they have “conversations.” Even arguments and debates and disagreements are “conversations.”
What is it about the word “conversation”? How is it that it has wormed its way into so many places in our language once described by perfectly good, and often more precise, words?
I suspect it’s because the people who use it think it sounds friendlier. And few people can resist warm and fuzzy, even at the expense of clarity.
What do you think? Let’s start the conversation about conversation.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sad Song.

Writing a song is an odd accomplishment for someone who couldn’t carry a tune with a packsaddle.
Still and all, lacking good sense, some time ago I thought to try it—and award-winning singer and songwriter Brenn Hill came to the rescue and made it reality.
I have long been obsessed with the Bear River Massacre. Events of that tragic day in 1863 have found their way into my poems, short stories, and an entire nonfiction book. Despite ignorance of the ways and means of music, being the curious sort I wondered if I could write a song about it. 

The jumble of words that resulted seemed to have possibilities so I inflicted it on the good graces of my friend Brenn, without any real expectation that anything would result. Lo and behold, a few days later he sent me an audio file labeled “And the River Ran Red”—the title I had given the piece. Brenn re-engineered some of the words to meet the demands of lyrical structure and set it to a beautiful tune as haunting as the massacre itself.

On February 10 and 11 (2017, of course), Brenn is headlining Valentine’s Day weekend concerts at the American West Heritage Center in Utah’s Cache Valley—between Wellsville and Logan, and some 36 miles south of the Bear River Massacre site. And, he tells me, the audience will experience the first performance of “And the River Ran Red” as part of the concert.
I can’t wait. Join us.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Favorite Book, Part 5

Cormac McCarthy is, to say the least, a divisive author. I know many readers (and writers) who, like me, admire his books. And I know many equally capable readers and writers who do not like him, for a variety of reasons.
McCarthy has little respect for the conventions of punctuation. He’s big on ambiguity. He often circles around a scene and sneaks up on you rather than confronting you head-on. He is not easy.
But, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, another author I admire, “So it goes.”
Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West, is among my favorite books and my favorite by McCarthy. Professor, author, and literary critic Harold Bloom calls it “the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed.” This, despite the fact that he was so overwhelmed by the book’s violence he set it aside twice before finally finishing it.
And there’s no question it is a violent book. It’s based on history—the exploits of a band of murderous scalp hunters operating in the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
Whether it’s violence or just about anything else he’s writing about, McCarthy has a way of saying things that’s unsurpassed. His descriptions are so spare, yet vivid, they surprise you—forcing me, at least, to re-read passages for their beautiful language.
Bloom also has this to say about Blood Meridian: “The book’s magnificence—its language, landscape, persons, conceptions—at last transcends the violence, and converts goriness into terrifying art, an art comparable to Melville’s and to Faulkner’s.”
Not bad comparisons for a Western novel.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Lies They Tell Writers, Part 35: Nobody reads anymore.

A lot of the advice you get as a writer is discouraging: Writing a book is hard work. Publishers won’t read your manuscript. Self-published books don’t sell. Bookstores won’t stock your books. Nobody reads anymore.
There’s an element of truth in all those disheartening claims.
Except the last one.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that nobody reads anymore. It’s usually attributed to all the other distractions competing for former readers’ time: TV, movies, music, video games, social media, and so on and so on.
But, the fact is, according to the Pew Research Center, 73% of adults in the United States read a book in the past 12 months. And that hasn’t changed much over the past five years. Most of them—65%—read a printed book, 28% read an ebook, and 14% listened to an audiobook. Not only are people reading, they’re reading (and listening to) multiple formats (which is why that adds up to 107%).
How much Americans read is also holding steady. Readers read an average of 12 books a year, with the “typical” reader getting through four books. Obviously, readers like me are pushing up the average—in the past year I’ve read somewhere around 60 or 70 books.
There’s no doubt people are still reading.
I only wish they were reading my books.