Hallucinations, a blog about writing, trains, and Wire to Wire
I can remember two things that shook my sense of size when I was a kid. One was the Ford Rotunda in Detroit. Like thousands of other families, we went there to see the Christmas display – before it burned down. The other world shaker for me was the fleet of Ann Arbor Railroad ferries – mammoth ships that carried entire freight trains across Lake Michigan. I didn’t have any idea what big was about until I saw those ships.
The railroad ferries also carried passengers across the Big Lake, from Northern Michigan to Northern Wisconsin and back. These ships were so foreign to our experience, that my friend Deeg (that was his name at the time; it keeps changing) speculated that a ticket to Wisconsin would certainly cost $100 or more. I happened to know it cost only $10, and began to plot ways of tricking the other $90 out of him. A few years later, Deeg or Doug or Jesse or D.C. or whatever he’s calling himself these days, showed me how to hop freights, and the situation was reversed: he knew stuff I didn’t, like what it meant when the hoses were hooked, and which boxcars would be set out first on a train. To his credit, he never tried to trick me.
As I wrote Wire to Wire, set in the Michigan of my imagination, I knew I had to include the railroad ferries. I discovered it was hard to write about something so big. I found myself putting mammoth in every sentence. The cliché “as long as a football field” kept trying to get in the prose. In the end, I’m not sure I captured how much space they filled up in my head. They were freakin’ big.
Of course, by the time I finished the manuscript, I’d learned it was the small things – words that aren’t said, a touch, a glimpse of loneliness or friendship – that really matter, and that they are even harder to put on the page.
The ferries still stun me though. I’m going back to Michigan this summer – the schedule for the W2W reading tour is up on the Events page – and though the railroad ferries are gone, some of their car ferry cousins still remain. I hope I get a chance to ride them again.
"Swimming in the Big Lake, taking it easy." Bob Seger's "Brave Strangers." You weren't expecting "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," I hope.
Wire to Wire: Inside the 1984 Detroit Tigers Championship Season is not my book. Though in a way it is. This other Wire to Wire, written by George Cantor and published in 2004, chronicles the magical year when the Tigers opened the season with a 19-1 record.
Imagine it happening day by day. 19 wins. One loss. A few weeks later they were 35-5. During the first quarter of that season, the Tigers were virtually unbeatable. Argue great teams all you want, but based on that win-loss record, no team in baseball has ever been that good, before or since.
The Tigers won the pennant and the World Series wire to wire that year – meaning they were in first place every day of the season. Only two other teams had ever done that in over 100 years of baseball.
I took that as a freaking sign. I named my book after it. (Cantor's book, I might add, had not been written yet.)
Later, I wrote to Jesse Burkhardt about my decision to quit my job and write a book. Jesse is also Iron Legs Burk, who showed me how to hop freights. He saved the letter for a decade or two, and today he mailed it back to me.
To be clear, my Wire to Wire has nothing to do with baseball. The Tigers aren’t even mentioned. (Well, actually, there’s a little play by play in the background of one scene, an argument. If you read the book and you’re from Michigan, imagine the great Ernie Harwell calling the plays as Harp and Lane shout at each other.)
Stripped of the Tigers' connection, the phrase wire to wire had to find its own meaning in my story. And eventually it did. The necessity of discovering what it meant was a blessing I didn’t recognize at first.
The letter continues:
Near the end of the letter, the younger me also writes this to Jesse: “There’s a line in my book that says ‘we rode the rails and we kept going long after most people would have quit.’” That particular line is no longer in the book – the voice is wrong – but now it seems to apply as much to writing as it did to riding. I kept going. The strength came from a lot of people, Jesse and many others. It came from music, my family, from random good luck that fell on me for no reason – and even from a baseball team that, during one amazing year, simply couldn’t lose.
I’m part way through Cantor’s book, by the way, and if you’re a baseball fan, or a Sparky Anderson fan, I think you’d enjoy it. I also have a new phrase in my head – a phrase that still needs to find its meaning. I'm taking that as another good sign.
In a world like this, you need a heart like Jon Dee Graham's. So you don't get "Faithless."
I’m unclear about the rule concerning dreams and fiction. Some say you should never write about dreams – after all, fiction is itself a kind of dream, so any dream you put in a book is automatically a dream within a dream. Plus they’re just never as interesting as real life ('real' fictional life, I mean).
Others say dreams are like sex scenes – they’re okay as long as they’re justified, but keep it short and no more than three per book.
Wire to Wire includes five dreams, but three of them are super short – a sentence or less – so I think I’m under the limit. (You’ll have to count the sex scenes yourself.)
The desire to write about dreams is understandable, though. There you are, struggling to create a believable imaginary world, and every night your subconscious is churning out a nonstop stream of surreal, autobiographical fiction. Why not use some of that stuff? Plus, no one wants to hear about your lousy dreams in real life, so your only option for sharing is to put them in your book.
(For the record, none of the dreams presented in Wire to Wire started out as actual dreams, except one. And it’s not the Blowjob Dream. I wish.)
Still, I do agree that you have to be very careful about using dreams in stories. By their nature – ephemeral and shifting and unreliable – dreams lack many of the things that make fiction seem real to the reader.
Happily, there are no restrictions about using dreams in blogs. In my view, anyway, blogs are like early Deadwood episodes. It's a land with no rules and anything goes – at least until George Hearst shows up and spoils everything.
So in that spirit, I present: Things I’ve learned from my dreams in just the last seven nights.
- If your testicles come off, go to whatever hospital is close by. Don’t try to drive to a better hospital way across town, because you’ll inevitably get drawn into some other scenario, like a pick-up basketball game. And you’ll never get your testicles back on.
- If there’s a switch on your desk that turns gravity on and off, make sure there’s a similar switch on the ceiling.
- A screen door mounted with duct tape instead of hinges is not adequate protection against albino wolves.
- Also, if you attach your screen door using duct tape, try giving your roommate a heads-up, so he doesn’t accidentally rip it off just as the albino wolves are approaching.
- Strippers prefer customers who smell nice over customers who look nice. (Actually, I didn’t learn this from a dream. I learned it from Twitter. Strippers are among the most interesting people on Twitter, in my opinion. Generally, they aren’t there to promote something the way the rest of us are – they’re just sharing their observations about their generally crappy but interesting jobs. Most of them – at least the ones I follow – seem pretty empowered. Their jobs have many of the same drawbacks that our jobs have, but intensely amplified, so there’s more drama. And the language of strip clubs completely lacks the deadness of the non-stripping world. This particular observation about good-smelling custys comes from StripperTweets – currently tweeting from Austin, where she is on a panel about interactive something-or-other at SXSW. I’ve also learned a lot from K to the A to the T. I hope to meet them both someday and buy a table dance, or at least give them an ARC.)
- If there’s any sort of high school gym involved in your dream, trouble will follow. Locker rooms are especially bad.
- Sex in the subconscious is almost always a one-dream stand.
- If you order a drink at a coffeeshop, and another customer picks it up, hit them with a blindside tackle, pin them to the floor, and lecture them about their incredible sense of entitlement. (More of a fantasy than a dream, admittedly.)
- And finally, if you’re standing in the living room of a house you no longer own, and a tornado is coming your way, perfectly framed in the picture window, don’t try to take a photo of it with your Nikon camera, because there won’t be any film in the camera, and even if you have a spare roll somewhere, you will have forgotten how to load it.
This last one is a hard lesson to learn. It make take 40 or 50 repetitions of this dream before you get the point. Going digital won’t help, either. The camera jams.
Here’s what puzzles me though: I never dream about my book. I dream about my dad, mom, wife, son, sister, and friends. I dream about freight trains, Michigan, Bob Seger, my job, and sex. I dream about editing my college newspaper (the pages are all blank). Why no dreams about the thing I’ve dreamt of most?
Michigan Dreams: "There are phantoms all around me, but they're just beyond my grasp." Country Joe and the Fish, "Bass Strings."
Posted in Writing
Time to switch all obsessing from fiction to music. SXSW is ten days away. Ears Two is sending spreadsheets almost hourly, mapping out which bands we must hear. (You remember Ears Two, my SXSW cohort with encyclopedic music knowledge.) The company laptop is jammed with sample mp3s and flashing “Low on Disk Space.”
Before things get any further out of control, here’s a partial list of rules for enjoying SXSW.
- Arrive early. Stay late.
- Don’t be greedy. Aim for one transcendent musical experience per day. Just have fun the rest of the time. (This one is tough. We want every set to be stellar.)
- Build your schedule around Jon Dee Graham and Alejandro Escovedo. Fill in the blanks with everyone else.
- But also, don’t follow your schedule or you’ll miss all the good stuff. Improvise. Give miracles a chance.
- Get totally blown away by at least one band/singer you thought you’d hate. Get totally disappointed by at least one band/singer you thought you’d love.
- No matter where you are, something better is happening somewhere else. Get used to it.
- Crowds in the street are not a sign of good music inside.
- If you meet the Buddha on the road, ask him if Mary Lou Lord is in town.
- Avoid grackles.
- The five-second rule does not apply to earplugs. When it hits the ground, it’s gone. Carry extra.
- Do not try to live-tweet the festival.
- Do try to find the cab driver with the big Tupperware container of frozen vegetables so you can work his profane dialogue into your next story.
- Do not buy a guitar.
- The festival is not a success unless you completely fill up an Amy’s ice cream punch card and get a free scoop at the airport the morning you leave.
- It is okay to let people assume that, given your age and your badge, you must be a record producer or some other type of VIP. It is not okay to tell people that you have copyrighted the phrase “Check Check” or “Testing One Two.” Do not attempt to collect royalties for same.
- When the temptation to get a tattoo or a cowboy hat becomes too strong, head home.
Posted in Music
When my son was one minute old, he taught me something about life. The nurse handed him to me and in those first few seconds, I felt relief. The months of anxiety were over. My naïve thought was: I can stop worrying now. I held onto that belief for as long as it took to exhale and draw in one breath. Then I realized my worries weren’t over. They were just beginning.
So I guess what I learned was: It never ends.
Zane’s eighteen now. Things have more or less worked out. Still, last night my wife woke up around midnight, worried that he didn’t have enough gas to get to school in the morning. I could hear rain hitting the window. I almost asked if she wanted me to go out and check the gauge. But I didn’t. Never ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to.
A manuscript is like a kid that way, at least for me. The day Tin House said they’d take my book, I thought I’d reached the finish line. Instead, there’s a whole new universe of things to obsess over. Should I be promoting it more? Am I tweeting too much? What if Tin House has changed their mind about publishing it? I haven’t heard from them in a while. Should I call them just to be sure? What about reviews? Should I even read them?
Last Sunday I finished Tom Grimes’ brilliant memoir, Mentor. It’s the story of Grimes’ life as a writer and his time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Grimes’ mentor is Frank Conroy; their relationship is at the heart of the story. It’s an amazing book. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review.
Initially, I thought the appeal of reading Mentor would be in seeing the path I didn’t take. At about the same time Grimes went to Iowa, I quit my day job, started freelancing and tried to teach myself to write fiction. I thought it would take five years. It took much longer.
But although those two paths are different, they have something in common. A writer’s life is irrational, as Grimes says Conroy says. And you inflict all sorts of crap on yourself along the way. Irrational worries. Twice I put the book down and said, that’s enough. It’s too close to the bone. The problem is, it’s not the kind of book you can stop reading.
When I finished Mentor on Sunday night, one gift it gave me was a sense of resolve. I promised myself not to let the world define Wire to Wire for me. Reviews don’t matter.
The world, being a kind and gentle place, let me hold onto that belief for almost 12 hours before outing me as a hypocrite. The next morning Publishers Weekly gave Wire to Wire a starred review and made it Pick of the Week.
So hold that thought. It turns out reviews do matter. As long as they’re good. As for my resolve not to read them…hey, revision is everything in writing. That includes revising my beliefs.
Somebody tell me if I’m tweeting too much, though.
Sometimes you gotta lose it, just to lose it, just to find it again: Alejandro Escovedo says you gotta have “Faith.”
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- My Essay on Bloom: No Other Way Out
- Playlist in LargeHearted Boy
- A Book Brahmin Essay for Shelf Awareness
- Powell's Blog: Sex & Money
- Powell's Blog: Riding Freights
- Powell's Blog: Burning Down the House
- Powell's Blog: Bob Seger
- Powell's Blog: Thank You
- An Interview with Kathleen Alcala
- An interview with Laura Stanfill
- Video with Yuvi Zalkow
- Interview with Noah Dundas
- Tin House Blog: Motor City Fiction
- Blog on Occupy Writers
- W2W Essay for Northwest Book Lovers
- W2W Essay for Poets & Writers
- America Reads: Page 69
- America Reads: My book, the movie
- America Reads: What I'm Reading
- Interview with Be Portland
- The Oregonian: Where I Write