Douglas Arvidson is a past winner of the WICE/Paris Transcontinental International Short Story competition. His short fiction has been published in Paris, Prague, and in literary magazines in the United States and he was recently invited to be a staff writer for the Prague Revue, a cutting-edge, online literary journal ( The novels in his fantasy series, The Eye of the Eye of Stallion, include The Face in Amber, The Mirrors of Castaway Time, and A Drop of Wizard's Blood. His new novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, was selected as a finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book of the Year national awards and as a finalist in three categories in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards: Action Adventure Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Young Adult Fiction. It has become part of the pantheon of Pacific literature and is now included in school literature programs. Brothers of the Fire Star is an adventure story set in the Pacific during World War II and concerns two boys of different races and cultures who escape the island of Guam in a small sailboat when the Japanese army invades. They must then struggle to survive as they master the secrets of the ancient Pacific navigators. Appropriate for young adults as well as adult readers, Brothers of the Fire Star is available on Barnes & Noble, ( and Visit the author's website:

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Never-Ending, Skull-Crunching Search for Brain Candy: Scanning the Internet and Reading, Reading, Reading

Where I now read and surf, looking for the elusive cognitive jolt that will inform what I write. I feed on the offerings of both good books and the infinite--if ofttimes sketchy--resources of the Internet. How did I ever have time for a day job? Anyway, here are this morning's gleanings with some personal thoughts attached:

There are some people who read too much: The bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as others are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.- - - H. L. Mencken

Ah, the Sage of Baltimore, the acerbic journalist and critic of American life (don't worry, he's dead as of 1956) peeled back a filmy coating and revealed a pithy truth: Some people are so well read they are idiots. Avoiding the dirty, desperate real world--they fancy themselves above it all--by keeping the up-turned schnoz in a book, they then lean out and peer down at the rest of filthy humanity and pass unctuous judgement. Still, there's something unsettling about the dark, slithery habits of bookworms. Could they be right?

When you long with all your heart for someone to love you, a madness grows there that shakes all sense from the trees and the water and the earth. And nothing lives for you, except the long deep bitter want. And this is what everyone feels from birth to death.- - - Denton Welch

Who the hell is Denton Welch? A nearly forgotten English literary genius (there are a few of these left, apparently, whose reputations hang in closets in dusty bedrooms in drafty English country homes) who died at age 33 in 1948 (yeah, he's dead, too). In this quote, he gets the human longing for love just about right. He was born into one of those "privileged" lives wherein the attempt was made my mummsy and daddy to curmudgeon him into shape to fit upper-class British sensibilities. He rebelled against it with all his poor soul, and was miserable and desperate and tragic before the auto accident that damaged him irreparably.

Television is a triumph of equipment over people, and the minds that control it are so small that you could put them in a gnat's navel with room left over for two caraway seeds and an agent's heart.
                                   - - - Fred Allen, CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter, 1977

Fred Allen was an ol' time radio comedian back in the '30s. You know, you've heard them--the scratchy quality, the nasal voices, the live band in the studio. He was famous, and is now dead. But he was funny and saw the truth and told us about it and got us through the depression and then some. And he saw the scurrilous bread-and-circus effect of television on the public mind. What the hell would he have thought of the Internet? I shudder to think.

But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; In the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.- - - Major Sullivan Ballou, to his wife, a week before his death in 1861, during the Civil War

Major Ballou was one of the 700,000 soldiers, on both sides, killed during the American Civil War. That figure is, again, 700 freakin' thousand. All Americans, too. T'was ever thus, and when will we ever learn?If you've never had to leave anyone you loved very much to go to war, you'll never understand Major Ballou's romantic agony.

I have a most peaceable disposition. My desires are for a modest hut, a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, very fresh milk and butter, flowers in front of my window and a few pretty trees by my door. And should the good Lord wish to make me really happy, he will allow me the pleasure of seeing about six or seven of my enemies hanged upon those trees.- - - Heinrich Heine

This from Wikipedia about Heinrich: Among the thousands of books burned on Berlin's Opernplatz in 1933, following the Nazi raid on the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, were works by Heinrich Heine. To commemorate the terrible event, one of the most famous lines of Heine's 1821 play Almansor was engraved in the ground at the site: "Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." ("That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.") This long-dead German poet had the sublime and perfect poet's understanding of human nature. A little bitter brain candy, anyone?

A cup of coffee - real coffee - home-browned, home-ground, home-made, that comes to you dark as a hazel-eye, but changes to a golden bronze as you temper it with cream that never cheated, but was real cream from its birth, thick, tenderly yellow, perfectly sweet, neither lumpy nor frothing on the Java: such a coffee is a match for twenty blue devils, and will exorcise them all.
                                                       - - - Henry Ward Beecher "Eyes and Ears"

Henry was a liberal clergyman and abolitionist back when the good people of our South still thought slavery was a damned good idea and nothing less than God's will. They were willing to die by the hundreds of thousands rather then let it go. Apparently Reverend Beecher fueled his abolitionist rhetoric--and was able to even take on the great slavery-loving Christian God of the South himself--by drinking enough really good coffee.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Existentialism and the Daily Struggle for Mindfullness: Right Brain, Left Brain, a Tragic Writer's Brain

Discovery in my backyard: A pine needle fell from on high and managed to go through a hole that an insect had made in this leaf.

The world/universe/time/space continuum is filled, chuck full of the improbable--miracles, if you will. But I won't. A closer look, a thoughtful examination, will reveal that improbable events are, given enough time, certainties--absolutely. The royal flush, the existence of life, the pine needle dropping perfectly through a hole in a leaf--all are going to happen, eventually--no intervention or Grand Plan necessary. So, you hawkers of the miraculous, be careful as you sell your snake -oil nostrums to the gullibles on their travels. You are accountable to yourselves.

Take David Foster Wallace for example. I've really just discovered this brilliant, infinitely jesting, tragic, philosopher-writer. It's a very fine thing to discover such improbable people because they have much to teach us. Wallace was bonafide brilliant. The real thing. He graduated from Amherst summa cum laude, received a McArthur Foundation genius award, wrote stuff that no one else had ever thought of, and so changed the world--at least a little bit. And that's what geniuses do. It's part of the genius package. You gotta change the world. He thought and wrote and taught and loved and celebrated and then he hanged himself. He was forty six.

My take on David Foster Wallace goes like this: His whole deal, all that long-shot, creative-cognitive hyper-power, was attempting to do one thing: Boil things down to some small, hard, indivisible kernel that we could get a grip on and so live better, happier lives. Here's a quote:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.... The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.... The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.

Pity us in our daily struggle to maintain that illusive state of mindfulness. If you are very lucky and discover what mindfulness is all about and how wonderful it is, you are many steps ahead of the most of humanity. If you can employ mindfulness in your daily life, and if it makes you happy and relieves much of the mad burden of being alive, you are light years ahead of most people.

I think the bottom line for Wallace, as he battled the hellish demon of the depression that finally killed him, was that mindfulness helped him and he figured it could help all of us. He was trying to understand what mindfulness really was and how to get a handle on it; how to keep it right there, up front in your mind, so that you didn't have to stop what you were doing and take the time to get a grip on it every time you needed it.

Existentialism proposes that we are all responsible for giving our own lives meaning as we navigate the anguish and accumulating miseries of existence. And we should not forget the joyous stuff in life, too, I suppose. That pesky joy stuff. We have to fit that in somewhere and you get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to choose, in other words, to be happy or unhappy. It's up to you. So, practice mindfulness by moving slowly, breathing deeply, and smiling ("Look, there he goes again, moving slowly, breathing deeply, and--worst of all--smiling. He must be a serial killer).

In the end, though, none of that cognitive therapy could fix the biological imbalance that set David Foster Wallace off on his tortured path to self destruction. But it was his search for a cure for his own existential terror that gave us such a wonderful gift--an improbable gift that, nonetheless, was bound to happen--and, like the pine needle and the leaf, had to happen--eventually.

Friday, November 19, 2010

OMG! The Writer's End Game: Smarmy Hollywood or Cold, Calculated Tear Jerking?

In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end. Alexis de Tocqueville

Monsieur de Tocqueville lived from 1805 to 1859 (they tended reach their own end game young in those days--infections, mostly), and wrote a famous book about the American experiment with democracy. He was not, as far as I know, a novelist, however, he did, apparently, understand both the agony of the American revolution end game and the agony of the writer trying to put a close to things on a literary level.

So now, here I am, trying to end my own personal little revolution/novel by inventing a good ending. Many questions arise as the writer smells the denouement approaching while the climax roars in his head. How do I avoid ruining a perfectly good novel that I've labored over with mighty love for two years? Is it possible to scotch a perfectly good idea by screwing up the ending?

You can hear your readers talking it over with their mothers on the phone, or at the bar, or in the hair salon, or on lying on a beach towel, or chatting on FaceBook:

"Yeah, I thought it was great, too, but the ending sucked."


 "I hated the ending. I can't believe he killed her off. What was that all about?"


"It would have been a fine book, but he blew it with the smarmy Hollywood ending."


"OMG! I couldn't believe the ending! It blew me away!"


OMG! Wait until you get to the ending. I cried and cried!"

Cliches of failure due to indecisivness come to mind: You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself. Better them crying than me, I say. If Hollywood ever makes a movie out of this book, I'll let them put in whatever ending they want, but for now, I'm in charge and I say, cry baby, cry.

Still, I struggle. How to put this whole 80,000-word deal to bed and get it just right. In an earlier blog, I quoted Mark Twain lecturing that the difference between using the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. The answer, I know intuitively, is right there in the book, hidden in arc of the plot, intertwined in the dialog. There is only one way to do it. Arrrgh. The pressure.

I've now re-written the ending five times. Sometimes I leave them stretched out there, bullet riddled and dying; sometimes they get up and walk away into the sunset; sometimes they desanguinate into the sand, sometimes all those bullets miss them by a hair. Sometimes I give up and go for a long walk.

But, what the hell and OMG, I've finished writing another novel. The angony of the ending is joyful one and sweating to get it just right is a deeply satisfying anguish.

Sunset over Onancock Creek from the cockpit of our sailboat: Mother Nature never gets criticized for her Hollywood endings.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Writer in Search of Self--No! Wait! I Found Me!

                              Here I am. This is me.  I'm standing on the dock of the Bay. What next?

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. ~George Moore

All men should strive
to learn before they die

what they are running from, and to, and why.
~James Thurber

Dear Mr. Thurber:

This is what I'm running from and to in stream-of-consciousness, no-rational-sequence format:

Look at me. I'm sixty-four. I'm grizzled. I've got an incipient paunch. I can still run three miles. I work out regularly. I'm retired. I can play the guitar. I can play the harmonica. I'm in love with my wife. We've been together for almost thirty-one years. Today I finished writing another novel--maybe my ninth or tenth, I can't remember. Today I'm very happy. My goal is to come to terms with death so that when my own approaches, I'm not afraid. That's what I'm running to, Mr. Thurber.

I believe life is all about accumulating wisdoms, great and small. I've learned a lot since I turned sixty. I believe many old people have not bothered doing this. With old age comes wisdom, but in most cases old age comes all by itself.

I embrace a Buddhist philosophy up to the point of reincarnation. There's not a shred of rational evidence to support a belief in reincarnation. I think cynical people live stunted lives. I'm a humor junkie. I have often embarrassed myself telling dirty jokes in wrong venue. I'm embarrassed by my loud voice.

I flunked algebra in high school. I've written a short story that won an international prize in Paris. I wrote another story that was published in Prague. I've written three fantasy-adventure novels. Two have been published, number three is "upcoming" as my publisher says. As a senior in high school, I lost my position on the basketball team to a freshman. Our team seldom won a game.

I didn't die in Viet Nam like two of my friends did because I played the game of staying out of Viet Nam and still serve in the Army and I won. I just visited their graves. They were both twenty years old. I was once an enlisted man in the Army and an officer in the Air Force. I started flying jet planes in the Air Force and then quit pilot training. Sometimes I regret this because I wanted to be a hero. I graduated with as a Distinguished Graduate from School, Military Science, Officer in San Antonio, Texas in 1974.

I graduated from college with high honors. I have two beautiful, successful children. I'm a good sailor. I have two boats. I love the old house and small town I live in. I love good scotch and I love good bourbon. I love good wine. I don't drink much anymore because of the below described problems:

I have a cardiac arrhythmia called atrial flutter. I've had it operated on twice. I have high blood pressure, controlled by medication. I have high cholesterol, controlled by medication. I have high hopes, controlled by reality.

I have a Masters degree in speech-language pathology and worked at the profession for thirty-two years. I'm proud of that. I should have started writing as younger man. I never had a job I loved until I found writing. I hate crawling down in the bilge and working on boat problems. I hate being hot and sweaty. I need a hot shower and a cool, clean sheets. I crave adventure but hate being uncomfortable. I've sailed my own boat to uninhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes I am afraid. The loneliest I've been was at sea, as the captain of a small boat, at night, alone, on watch, looking up at the stars. That kind of loneliness manifests itself as a feeling of being permeated by cold.

I have spent twenty-eight years of my life living overseas. I love being back home. I lived in the Republic of China for two and a half years. I live in Iceland for two years and Germany for twelve. I lived on the island of Guam for eleven years. Does that add up? I've been around the world. I took the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Russia and we drank good vodka and I lost at chess to a pretty Russian woman. I drank water from Lake Baikal.

When I was in the Army in China, I earned a black belt in karate (Wado). I'm advanced open-water SCUBA diver. I once sat in the cockpit of WWII Japanese plane 110 feet below the Pacific.

I would like to have twenty additional I.Q. points. I would like be taller and wiser and lose twenty-five pounds--but only one of those things might happen. I would not like to be young again. I have a bridge I wanna sell you.

I am a nonthiest/sceptic because there's not a shred of rational evidence to think any other way. Really. Think about it. No, really think about it.

What I Googled myself, I found a website that published some things I wrote. Here's the most important thing I found on that website that I said. It's about writing. I love writing:

One rule of good writing is anything goes if it works. Stories are supposed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. An arc, like a word rainbow, like fireworks, like a love affair. Maybe. I've read a few good ones that didn't.

Whatever else it is that makes a story unforgettable, there are two real necessities: compelling characters and some alchemy in the process of weaving of ideas into words that gives the reader a distinct feeling of intellectual pleasure--that boy-that-was-great feeling. Who was the fairy tale character who could weave straw into gold? That's how to write.

So, Mr. Thurber, it's been a pleasure taking your advice. I'm now off to have a glass of good red wine and eat my supper.


Doug Arvidson

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Difference Between Good Work and Bad Work: Writing Next to the Ditch Digger

"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." -- Samuel Johnson.

Pity the poor ditch digger, laboring in the dirt, filthy, exhausted and probably broke. Shall we also pity the poor writer, laboring at his desk (or kitchen table)?

I decided that there is good work and there is bad work. Writing is work, but it's good work. We can stop and have coffee or take a nap. We can go for a walk, mow the lawn, chat up a friend, or just stop and stare at that interesting stain on the wall--or even write a blog entry. For your average ditch digger, though, your options for spontaneous bursts of goofing off are limited.

This occurred to me while I was Googling around looking for quotes about writing. The Great Search Engine brought me to a blog entitled, "Quotes About Writing." I don't know this blogger but he and I agree on one thing, so far. That is, writing is work. And unless you work at it, and work at it hard, it will be "read without pleasure," if at all. The odd/ironic thing (we writers love irony) about this guy's blog was that he quit writing it a few years back, saying he was starting to repeat himself and no one seemed to be paying attention anyway. Yep, writing is hard work.

And here I am, pictured above, at work and it was about time I got back to it. I took some time off to drive to New England to fulfill some family obligations and then to travel to Washington D.C. to be a part of the Rally for the Return to Sanity/Keep Fear Alive (scroll down to my earlier blog entries see some great pictures of the that great scene). But now, as the autumn quickly ages toward winter and the weather outside turns windy and cold, I'm making a writerly dash to finish this next novel before we leave for Guam in December.

I thought I was finished, in fact. Thought the book's plot had run its course and had put it aside to let it "cook" as Hemingway used to say. Let it marinate, let it age so that when I go back to it, I can see it with fresh eyes. And that's what happened and my fresh eyes--and the fresh eyes of my wife--said, let's reconsider the ending because it is no longer working for me. It's not there, you're not there. Your characters still have some obligations to attend to.

So, putting on another, well, what looks to be say, 10,000 words--at least. And that will bring the word count up to a respectable 80,000+ and I'm into it and it's working and I'm working. I can see where the ditch of this novel will end and when I'm finished, I'm climbing out of it and I'll buy the other ditch digger a drink and we'll celebrate.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

More Signs from the Rally to Restore Sanity/Keep Fear Alive

These last two blogs are all about you liberal/independant-minded people out there. You sign-carrying, spell-checking, non-racist, bleeding-heart types who thronged to Washington D.C. last week and took the place over without any angry, ill-natured bones in your collective bodies.

You (we) had a marvelous time in the grand Fall weather and the ones who know D.C. and the Mall and the National Gallery of Art, know that right there, next to Mall, right next to where John Stewart and Steven Colbert where doing their thing, is a cafeteria down in the lower level of the Gallery. Here a weary liberal can find surcease from the madding crowd and knock back a few glasses of pinot grigio and knosh on some stuffed flounder. Thus refreshed, you can rejoin the throngs, as we did, and absorb more of the wonderful energy and take some more pix of the great signs. To wit, see below:

That's me, on the left, keeping fear alive.

 There was a very pretty young woman behind this sign. Alas, we were not the dudes she came for.

 These guys were my favorite sign bearers. They got it just right.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Rally for the Return to Sanity/Keep Fear Alive: Your Writer Was There

Last Saturday morning, I joined a few friends and we drove up the Nation's Capitol to witness the Rally to Return to Sanity/Keep Fear Alive. The weather was perfect and the huge energy of the crowd was way, way up on the postive index. No rage here, no anger, no racism---and no misspelled signs. And, speaking of signs, I'll be posting my favorites here for the next few blogs. They speak for themselves, so, no comments. Watch this space: