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:

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Naked Arrogance of Traveling: A Short Review of Paul Theroux's New Book or It's True--Solvitur Ambulando

Salvitur Ambulando--It is solved by walking.
Walking to ease the mind is also an objective of the pilgrim. There is a spiritual dimension too: the walk is a part of a process of purification. Walking is the age-old form of travel, the most fundamental, perhaps the most revealing.

                                          The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

I'm reading The Tao of Travel and so these are the things I thought about today on my four-mile walk on this, the hottest day of the year:

I thought about these objects that sit on my book shelves and when I got back home, I took this picture of them: The snake, the feather, the famous monkeys (They have names: from left to right they are Kikazaru, Fuazaru, and Mizaru.), and of course, the Buddha in one of his many representations. They are spiritual objects of course, all of them, sitting up there collecting dust from the cool, shadowy air--spiritual even to this nonthiest.

But I considered the Buddha the most today as I wandered, heat baked and dripping, because Buddhism runs through Theroux's books, The Tao of Travel being no exception. Maybe that's because the Buddha was a great walker, maybe it's because Theroux philosophical inclinations tend toward Buddhism. The Buddha walked, probably barefoot, in the dirt and disease and sacred cow dung and sweltering heat of the Indian subcontinent, and this appeals to Theroux's basic values.
In The Tao of Travel Theroux has collected quotes and anecdotes from other travel writers as well as from his own works, and comments on them with a mind toward establishing a single message, and the message is clear: traveling at its best, by train or by foot, is a way of getting down deep into the tao or essence of things--of our lives, the lives of others, the collective life of the world's peoples.

To that end, hard traveling, preferably alone, is de rigueur as opposed to comfortable, all-inclusive traveling as a tourist which is shameful, shallow, and pointless. Theroux prefers difficult, solitary travel punctuated by sleeplessness, illness, dangerous encounters, and semi-starvation. Critical to the traveler's tao is the realization that the journey itself becomes the destination, that being the eternal outsider is essential, and paradoxically, coming home after such a journey is really what it's all about. Home is bliss.

Theroux is a favorite of mine. We are fellow writers and fellow travelers. I like his complexity, his self-assured crankiness, his arrogance, his courage, his willingness to tolerate the intolerable muck and mess of being out there. And, above all I admire his ability to keep a journal while doing it. Remember, he's rich and famous and need not submit himself to such misery.

And so, I understood his reaction when an interviewer suggested that this book is "blog-like." He bristled at the suggestion and I understand why. Most blogs are like tourist travel: shallow and pointless. The Tao of Travel though, is well thought out and has as its great central theme the idea that all humanity is one, but that to witness that one-ness, to truly understand it, one must have the arrogance and courage to strip down to one's own naked being and go out there and put yourself at humanity's mercy.

That, I think now, is what traveling is all about--an arrogant, naked love for the world.

Post Script

While on my sweating, dripping walk today, I stopped at the post office and mailed out the manuscript of my next novel. This is naked arrogance, this assumption that a publisher would appreciate receiving such a thing---something I wrote, boxed up with studied professionalism, carefully addressed, lovingly handled. And it is an exercise in Buddhism, being mindful as the postal clerk stamps and seals and chats and takes my money and drops the box into one of those big canvas mail bags.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Summer Writing Blues: Losing the Battle with Glorious Distractions

Ignore an empty beach at your peril: Go forth, writer, and reflect on the sand twixt your toes.

Yeah, I know, all you serious writers are still at it, even though a hot and glorious summer beckons from beyond the nearest window. Maybe you sigh, grimace, close your eyes for a moment, you try to close your ears to the sounds filtering in through the invisible cracks in your airtight bastion of creativity: the siren call of birds chirping, the summery drone of a lawn mower, the shrieks of the kids next door splashing in their pool. Oh yes, and that most famous of summer sounds, the slamming of a screen door.

I say, give it up. I decided to make the summer, with all the irresistible distractions of summer guests, boating, beaching, traveling, a time of renewal. If you are in a rust belt climate, the dregs of winter will come oozing back all too soon carrying the lovely dark and dreary motivations toward self expression. I'm going to rationalize these hot months into an excuse to do no more writing than scribbling an occasional blog or jotting down any stray profound insights into a small pocket notebook. Then, come November with its gray rain and leafless and heartless trees scratching against the windows of my writing room, I'll retrieve them and weave them into something satisfying.

Besides, I wrote for the past seven months and now my editor is busy scanning my winter manuscript for missteps and passive voices, wooden prose, and cardboard characters. As for me, I'll spend some long days in guilt-free beach walking or some rail-down sailing on the Chesapeake, or hot dog-eating family gatherings. It's time to catch up on myself, to see what I've become, what's left of me now, after so long hovering in the cold. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

How to Stop Students Horrid, Horrific, Hatred of Writing: An Idea

Encouraging young people to love writing: A enthusiastic "celebrity" can make a difference.

That's me up there, in the hot seat in front of a school media center filled with middle schoolers. I was a visiting "celebrity" author and my intentions were good: get these kids to see writing as a wonderful adventure rather than a hideous, boring, and despicable chore.

An insane expectation? First, I had try to get into the mind of the average 6th grader (OMG). What was going on inside that brain, overstimulated as it was by the infinite digital excitements of gaming and Internet social networks? Why did they love reading Harry Potter and love texting and emailing, but hate classroom writing assignments?

I took stock of my prior knowledge. As a professional who spent thirty-two years working in the public schools as a speech-language pathologist, I knew a few critical facts:

  • While human speech--talking--is a hugely complex but natural process generally mastered by the age of three or so, writing is not.
  • No, writing is a hugely complex language skill that is not acquired without intense, long-term instruction in the correct use of its seemingly endless, persnickety, idiotic, and stupid conventions; it is, in fact, an unnatural or "overlayed" skill.
  • Humans are gregarious, social creatures and anything that feeds into and supports that social gregariousness will tend to develop rapidly and even joyfully, e.g. talking to friends, or exchanging blips of friendly chatter on FaceBook or Twitter. And, better yet, when writing on these social networks, those persnickety, idiotic, and dumb grammatical rules can be officially ignored thus making the experience even more joyful.
  • Classroom room writing assignments that are not related to socializing and which require the exacting use of grammar and spelling rules will be seen as boring, difficult, rotten, dumb, and despicable.
How then, to approach the problem?
  • Break up the bad attitudes, confound the resistance, make them drop their guards by bringing in a "real" published author. It will be helpful if this author has had lots of experience presenting dog-and-pony shows in front of large groups of middle schoolers and is loud and enthusiastic and has had some (bad) acting experience.
  • This author will then read a little from his books and answer questions about being a writer. Surprisingly for kids who hate writing, there will be a lot of very good questions and then he will have the students write a very short beginning of a story and give them the opportunity to come up and read it aloud in front of their classmates and....
  • ....teachers will suddenly realize that students actually love writing, they just hate writing assignments that have nothing to do with the excitement of socializing with their friends or making up wild stories, and so....
  • ....after the visiting author finishes an entire day of talking to class after class of students and has no voice left and leaves the school dazed and very much in need of a beverage, the teacher can capitalize on the short-lived enthusiasm for writing he has left behind.
  • How to do this? Give even the most mundane writing exercise the thrill of the social network by relating it to important things in their lives and then encourage them to come up into the "author's chair" in front of the class, and read part of what they have written.
  • Do this on a regular, weekly basis, and with luck and skillful, underhanded, sneaky, pedagogical manipulations, the enjoyment of this type of writing will generalize to other more academic writing assignments.
  • And that is the key to this process: If students have an enjoyable writing experience once a week, the skills aquired and the improved attitude will impact other writing assignments and they won't even notice it.
I've done this quite a few times and it does seem to work. As you can imagine, the onus then falls on the poor language arts teacher to keep the enthusiasm going. Writing an essay on, say, Benjamin Franklin, is not seen as quite as enticing a project as emailing a friend. But why not? In fact, why not have them email a friend about Benjamin Franklin. He was not exactly a boring guy and having students find the fun and funny or even scary things he did and let them write report it in prose that uses words in a creative, off-beat way can help keep the enthusiasm for writing alive.

In the end, as they mature, students must learn that some writing assigments are just going to be boring. There is no way around it. It's life. Get the job done and get over it. Still, I have found that in most writing assignments, there is room for a little creative fun with words and language and if we can pass this along to our students, it can have a big impact on their education and, eventually, on their careers.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What I Learned About Writing Whilst in Chicago: The Penny Dreadfuls are Back in Style

Playing the Blues at Buddy Guy's Lounge: What does this great Chicago Blues musician have in common with a great writer?

I'm just back from Chicago where I was a writer/tourist. One doesn't mind being a writer in Chicago--or any place else for that matter--but one hates being a tourist because of the bad reputation tourists have for wearing funny clothes, and being sweaty, cheap, shallow, and ignorant.

Picture your classic thirty-something couple. They are wearing shorts and flowered shirts which, by 1:00 in the afternoon, they have sweated through. He is swinging his big camera around like a bazooka while their three children are dragging along and complaining loudly because their bellys are full of greasy fries and ketchup and they really need naps or to be in front of a television set.

Observed on the promenade along  Lake Shore Drive in Chicago last week:

Mother to her 4-year-old son: "David, stop doing that and come here. David, I'm going to count to three. David, one (long, hopeful pause), two (longer pause), three. "DAVID! STOPPING DOING THAT AND COME HERE!"

There was relief from the Great American Summer Vacationers, however. I found it in Legend, Chicago Blues great Buddy Guy's restaurant, lounge, and blues heaven. It happened to be right across the street from my hotel and you can go there for lunch and hear great blues or go there at night, eat dinner, and hear great blues. This is no dangerous dive, either. It's clean (very clean), well stocked, and well ordered. Cajun-style food is mostly served, and the patrons are respectful and serious about their music.

I don't carry a bazooka camera. I use a Nikon CoolPix that slides in and out of my pocket, no bigger than a fat credit card, and I got this picture of a musician playing great that night and that got me to wondering. How did he get so damned good?

The guitar was, quite literally, an extention of his body and so an extention of his mind, and so an extention of the very soul of his music. He never had to look down to find a chord. His fingers danced along the fret board jitter-bug fast, finding the precise place on the right string without any apparent effort. And he did this in perfect harmony with the guitarist who was playing next to him and in perfect rhythm with the drummer.

And that's what got me worried. Watching him got me thinking about something in the brave new world of fiction writing: Internet self publishing. Could this muscian have possibly decided to become a blues guitarist six months ago and get up and do what he was now doing? This wonderful muscial magic?

Of course not. What this guy was doing took years and years and years and years of persistent, daily, grinding hard work. And then before he was allowed get up on that stage, he had to audition before a very, very choosy, persnikkety, and judgemental expert in blues music that was not his mother.

My take on it is this: writing that is worth reading is just as difficult to produce as music that is worth listening to. But what is happening today in fiction writing is that people can--by the millions--publish whatever they write without having practiced and without having auditioned in front of anyone at all, even their mothers. is filled with such stuff and the selective reader must sort it all out by looking at the publisher before he buys. Published by CreateSpace? Be suspicious. Anyone can do that. 99-cent ebooks on Kindle? Buyer beware. The old Britsh Penny Dreadfuls are back.

So it worries me. If you would be a serious writer, you must be like a serious musician--pay your dues and learn to play. It takes many years to acquire the skills to make wonderful music with words. I suppose the great reading Internet public will sift through it all and in the end, the great writers will float to the top of that infinite slush pile. But until then, how are you to know that what you sent your 99 cents for is worth even a penny--and that's dreadful. 

Now that my rant is over, here are some fun and/or instructive quotes by writers who made wonderul music with words.

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I’d type a little faster.
                                                         Isaac Asimov

The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.
                                                         Walter Bagehot

There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence-an overwhelming determination to succeed.
                                                           Sophy Burnham

But words are things, and a small drop of ink, falling like dew upon a thought, produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
                                                           Lord Byron

Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.
                                                          Truman Capote

I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.
                                                          Truman Capote

Practice, practice, practice writing. Writing is a craft that requires both talent and acquired skills. You learn by doing, by making mistakes and then seeing where you went wrong.
                                                          Jeffrey A. Carver

Write from the soul, not from some notion what you think the marketplace wants. The market is fickle; the soul is eternal.
                                                          Jeffrey A. Carver

The pen is the tongue of the mind.
                                                          Miguel de Cervantes

Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.
                                                          Winston Churchill

When you wish to instruct, be brief; that men's minds take in quickly what you say, learn its lesson, and retain it faithfully. Every word that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.
                          Cicero Roman author, orator, & politician (106 BC - 43 BC)

One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.
                                             Hart Crane, American Poet (1899-1932)

If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works.
                                             John Dos Passos

Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.          
                                            Annie Dillard

In good writing, words become one with things.
                                            Ralph Waldo Emerson

A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.
                                           William Faulkner

Writers aren't exactly people.... they're a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.
                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when all the time we are longing to move the stars to pity. (Translation from French)
                                           Gustave Flaubert

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.
                                           Benjamin Franklin

All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.
                                           Kahlil Gibran

To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness.
                                           Allen Ginsberg

If any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.

The unsaid, for me, exerts great power . . .
                                          Louise Gluck

Unless one is a genius, it is best to aim at being intelligible.
                                         Anthony Hope Hawkins

Easy reading is damned hard writing.
                                        Nathaniel Hawthorne(1804-1864)

Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man."
                                        Heidegger (from "Building Dwelling Thinking", 1951)

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in shock-proof shit-detector.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

Real seriousness in regard to writing is one of two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

Work every day. No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.
                                        Ernest Hemingway

I don't know much about creative writing programs. But they're not telling the truth if they don't teach, one, that writing is hard work, and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.
                                       Doris Lessing

I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire.
                                       Gordon Lish