Every Writer Needs a Good Bass Kicking

If you’ve read my Stonecoast MFA graduation speech, you noticed that I took a couple of jabs at the writer and teacher, Rick Bass.  If you were in attendance at the graduation ceremony, then maybe you were lucky enough to see Rick flash me the bird as he sat with other faculty members a few rows from the stage.

Quick recap of my history with Rick.  My first workshop at the Stonecoast MFA program was with the Rick Bass.  On the last day of the workshop, we got to my story, at which point, Rick tore into its foundation, resulting in the Great Story Arch Collapse of 2011.  In Stonecoast terms, I got my Bass kicked, or I got Rick Bassed.  The story I like to tell about that experience is that at the end of the hour of destroying my story (and confidence), Rick suggested that the best thing I might do with my manuscript was to weave it into a rope and hang myself with it.  Of course, that’s hyperbole created to get a rise out of my listener.

That first Bass kicking quickly became legend, and it wasn’t uncommon for a fellow Stonecoast student to approach me after a Rick Bass workshop and say, “I just got Rick Bassed.”  We’d share a moment, forever bonded through our experience.  The Rick Bass workshop stories have taken on a life of their own, and like most things fiction writers say, only a small percentage of it can be believed.  Like a fisherman stretching out both arms saying, “No, seriously, this big.”

I feel partially to blame for the Rick Bass lore that now haunts the Stonehouse where the Stonecoast MFA program meets twice a year.  I mean, I was in Rick’s first workshop at Stonecoast — he was still jet lagged and uncertain about his duties in the program.  I also got a great rise out of telling the story of getting Rick Bassed, always embellishing until I hit my final note about Rick telling me to hang myself with my manuscript.

Maybe I feel badly.  No, I don’t feel that badly.  But, I do think Rick deserves an homage after I publicly recounted that story, while he sat trapped in an auditorium chair.

Here’s a little praise for Rick Bass, the true American short story, environmental essay, novel gangster.

Back in my Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford devouring days, I stumbled upon “The Fireman” in the 2001 Best American Short Stories.  The story sizzled and crackled off the page as the author wormed into the emotional embers of Kirby, the volunteer firefighter whose life has been numbed by a divorce, an unfulfilling day job, and a second marriage.  Facing the danger and beauty of fires at night allows Kirby to be resuscitated and present in his daily life.  The story itself might be flat in the hands of a lesser writer, but Rick breathes humanity and complexity into it.  It’s a beautiful story about an average guy who wants to deeply feel the world he exists in.  At the story’s heart is Kirby’s desire to be close to his daughter from his first marriage.  Some nights after fighting fires, he sits outside her window as she sleeps, leaving when the sun rises recharged, for the moment, from the closeness to fire and his daughter.  Brilliant story.  Read it and The Lives of Rocks and…forget it, read any of his fiction — short or long — you can get your hands on.

From “The Fireman,” I read any story that happened into my life with Rick’s name at the top.  But here’s a twist in this literary bromance I felt with Rick: at Bread Loaf, I discovered Rick’s environmental literature.  Reading his essay recounting a visit to a professional tracker in the North East Kingdom of Vermont, I was awed by his ability to write non-fiction prose.  It wasn’t like I was reading a fiction writer dabbling with environmental writing.  For me, he stands on the same pedestal with the best American environmental writers of our time: Bill McKibben, John Elder, William Cronan, Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry.  All of whom are direct descendants of Thoreau, Muir, and Ed Abbey.  His name belongs with all of the writers above.  Rick Bass is one of the preeminent voices on the Yaak Valley, in large part to the strength of his non-fiction prose.  Care about the natural world?  (Hopefully that answer’s yes since you are part of that world.)  Read Rick Bass.

Rick Bass

Here’s a picture of Rick and me after the graduation ceremony.  When I first met him, I was expecting more of a thick-shouldered, Paul Bunyan figure.  As you can see, he’s not an imposing figure.  Now let’s take a moment to discuss Rick Bass the teacher.

Slight in stature though he may be, he’s no milksop in the classroom.  Throw a weak plot twist at him, and he’ll tear it apart with surgical precision.  Have flat dialogue?  He’ll let you know with a pithy comment.  And don’t you dare test him with sloppy dialect.  Son, he ain’t having none of that.

As a teacher, though, Rick’s more than a biting workshop leader.  In the four days I spent workshopping with Rick, I wrote down pages of wisdom on writing fiction.  It took me a few months before I could return to those pages, like a wounded man who can’t return to the scene of the accident for fear of nightmares.  But I’m healed.  So here are some the greatest hits from that workshop.

  • There’s really only one type of story.  Someone wants something and they go after it: win, lose, or draw.
  • Stories should move with barn-burning intensity.
  • The goal of writing is to inhabit the deep subconscious—a dreamlike place.
  • Dialogue needs to move stories along and reveal something about character.
  • The last line of a story should be the best line; the second best line should be the first line.
  • There has to be a change to be a story—an understanding of something not formerly understood.  Even if the reader is the only one who recognizes it.
  • Never plan out the end of a story before you start writing.  Your ending should surprise you as much as it surprises your reader.
  • Each story has its own logic which you must be aware of and obey.
  • You want the dogs barking at the heels of your character—you want that desperation.
  • Revision is where the writing gets good—all that ripping and shredding.
  • Always ask, “What am I not seeing in my story?”
  • Trust your reader to be just as smart as you are.

There you have it.  My writing is stronger both from reading Rick’s work and in having him as a teacher.  I do believe that every writer should get his Bass kicked at some point.  You might not expect it from the seemingly mild man, but inside him lives a literary powerhouse with a careful eye and sharp tongue.  Proceed with caution.

Concert Review: Trey Anastasio Band at the State Theater, Portland (1.20.13)

Confession: I don’t have the stomach for jam bands anymore.  Growing up and going to college outside of Burlington, Vermont makes this a hard thing to confess.  I gave up smoking weed before leaving VT for Maine, so that might have something to do with it.  Mostly, though, my musical palate has changed.  I care dearly about the song these days — its form, lyrics, movements, key changes, and so on.  Jam band music is less about the song and more about the in-the-moment performance.  That’s cool, but the way I feel about extended jams is the way the writer Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It) felt about the novel; that is, it’s too breezy.  Cut the fat and get on to the next song.

Last night’s Trey Anastasio Band concert at Portland’s State Theater was a test of this leaner approach I have to music these days.  This was the fourth time I’ve attended a Trey sans Phish performance (my first coming in 2002 when I still donned my college Birkenstocks), and my appreciation for the songs and jams has dwindled slightly with each show.  But last night, I have to say, I found that Trey himself seems to be less interested in windy jams and more interested in pushing the boundaries of pop music.

As a rhythm section man, I’m going to give the bass and drums their beautiful due up front.  Russ Lawton (drums) and Tony Markellis (bass) hold it down with the best of them.  There’s nothing flashy.  No noodling bass solo played with a pick.  No Neil Pert gratuitous drum fill that goes on for twenty-eight measures.  These guys ground the ten minute plus jams without coming off as boring.  Tony Markellis put on a clinic that I wish all bass players were forced to attend.  His lines are sharp, melodic, and simple.  And he repeats them with hypnotic force.  If it weren’t for this tasteful rhythm section, the music might have gone off the rails and landed in the tie-dyed wearing, hippy dancing crowd seriously harshing their mellow.

With that established, however, I’m not going to lie, about two songs into the show, I thought about walking out.  They opened with “Cayman Review” and “Alive Again” off Trey’s 2002 solo album Trey Anastasio (Elektra Entertainment).  These are catchy songs, but I was overwhelmed by a rush of deja vu.  The bad kind.  I looked down to make sure I wasn’t wearing Birkenstocks.  The songs meandered.  I was even saddened to hear that the horn line to the chorus of “Alive Again” had been muted and no longer resembled the great hook it was in 2002.  But I was there with friends and needed to stick out the concert for their sake, even if it meant zeroing in on the rhythm section for a couple of hours.

Then the horn section bitch slapped me for even thinking about leaving.  A few songs into the first set, James Casey (most notably of Lettuce) reached into the crowd and grabbed us all by the collective throat.  It was the first new sound I heard come out of the Trey Anastasio Machine in years.  Holy shit.  Casey’s playing is fierce and undaunted.  His solo was one of the few moments of the night where I yearned for more bars.  I wanted to yell, “Jam, man.  Come on, jam.”  But, thankfully, for my pride’s sake, I didn’t yell anything other than a few whoops.  The other members of the horn section, Jennifer Hartswick on trumpet and Natalie Cressman on trombone, were solid on their respective instruments.  And, of course, Jennifer Hartswick has serious vocal chops and proved it on a beautiful version of “Drifting” and on the cover the Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood.”

At the center of the entire show, as you would imagine, was Trey.  The signature sound of Trey’s guitar tone was the backdrop to much of my early twenties for better or worse.  Mostly for better.  His  solos early in the first set last night were slow, predictable, and, dare I say, boring.  But as the show progressed, his playing became more melodic.  He started playing fewer notes.  He became more dynamic.  Maybe James Casey grabbed him by the throat, too.  Whatever it was, by the end of the first set, and well into the second set, Trey’s playing was refined and as good as I’ve ever heard it.  It was also refreshing to hear Trey on his Fender Jaguar guitar.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him on any other guitar than his signature Languedoc custom guitar or his Martin acoustic.  The Jaguar was punchy–more garage rock than buttery psychedelic rock.  Thank you, Trey.  Keep pushing the sound.

Here’s what annoys me about some Phish fans: they hate change.  I can’t imagine being an artist trying to continually grow and being expected to always sound the same and deliver the same product.  If an artist is going to be backed into a corner, I guess Phish isn’t a bad corner to be backed into, but what I saw last night was someone trying to push against the mold he’s been cast in.  The jams weren’t out of hand.  The rhythm section and horn section were tasteful and calculated.  (Did I mention James Casey?)  Even when they played Phish’s “First Tube,” the playing wasn’t Phish, it was the Trey Anastasio Band.

Last night was a pleasant surprise for this writer and musician now averse to jam bands.  I was glad to hear Trey growing, bringing on new musicians, and honing his live-performance songs.  The State Theater might have smelled as heady and yeasty as a Phish show, but the band on stage was something more refined.

Stonecoast Graduation Speech (1.12.13)

DaveCommencementWelcome everyone.  I’d like to take a moment to thank Director Finch, Associate Dean Tuchinsky, Aaron, fellow graduates, future graduates, and friends and family.

When I first showed up at the Stonehouse, I, maybe like some of the writers in this room, thought all I needed from this program were a few nuanced suggestions from professional writers.  Some tips on characterization perhaps. Possibly some pointers on dialogue.  Or maybe a bag of plot tricks to dazzle my reader. After sitting through these neat and tidy lessons I could accept my degree, drive home, sit at my writing desk, and craft a story ready for next month’s New Yorker.  Then I entered my first workshop run by Rick Bass.  I promptly learned that what I needed was not mere linguistic puffery—I needed to change my entire perception of what it means to be alive.  His challenge to us was to be artists.  I won’t go into the gory detail of that first workshop or what Rick suggested I do with my manuscript—there are children here for God’s sake—what I will tell you is that his comments set me on fire.  After, of course, they stopped making me want to withdraw from Stonecoast, dig a hole, and crawl deep within it.

One of the greatest gifts Rick and the other faculty at Stonecoast have given me—given us—is the clear vision of living an artist’s life.  Demanding of ourselves the will to look at the raw world we live in and report what we see.  To not shy away from the uncomfortable moments on the page or in our lives.  To know that the urgency we bring to a story or a poem or an essay can cause third degree burns, but that you shouldn’t leave the flames, not even when the smell of burning flesh hits your nostrils.

Art is work.  There’s another lesson of the artist’s life.  It is work to fill those pages every day.  To come back to the fire despite the broken toilet or sick child or the feeling that nothing worth a damn is going to come out of you as your fingertips graze soiled computer keys.  But you have to show up.  Clock in.  Sit down.  And get back to work.  Because that’s what artists do, and that’s what you need to be, an artist.

Now that I’m at the end of this program, it has dawned on me that for the past three semesters my mentors were all giving me the same advice.  They used their own phrases, pointed to different moments in my stories, but what Aaron Hamburger, Sarah Braunstein, and Scott Wolven were telling me was to make a mess on the page.  Of course, when I made that mess someone in a workshop would comment, “This section doesn’t fit” or “This wouldn’t really happen.”  So I resisted making a mess—maybe I was still gun-shy after that first workshop with Rick Bass.  I don’t place blame on my fellow workshopers for inhibiting my artistic desire to get messy on the page, I too called them out for taking chances.  Barked at them when a story veered from its clear path and wandered into the wilderness.  If there’s one thing we do at Stonecoast it’s learn and follow the rules.

But now, my fellow graduates, it is time to break the rules.  It is time to shed the rigid skin of workshop.  To be born forward into the artist’s life thatDSC04791 awaits us.  By sitting in those seats, in this auditorium, donning this graduation garb, the institution that is Stonecoast has decided that you know the rules of your genre.  You are now proficient.  It is time to break the rules.  Time to make a mess.  To go out and find what Henry David Thoreau calls the many more lives you have to live.  In your life at Stonecoast you were a rule learner and a rule follower.  In your next life you are an artist.

The poet Marvin Bell, who taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop for forty years, said, “Much of our lives involves the word ‘no.’  In school we are mostly told, ‘Don’t do it this way.  Do it that way.’  But art is the big yes.  In art you get a chance to make something where there was nothing.”  Now it is time to accept that ‘big yes.’  To practice resurrection, as Wendell Berry called it.  To get messy.

Maybe making a mess is where you marry those rules learned at Stonecoast with your own genius.  Where your art is not created by the rules, but by you choosing which rules to obey and which to toss out the second story window of your writing space.  In a workshop, Carolina de Robertis once told us, “There is a book inside you that no one else can write.”  You are an artist, and you will write that book, and it will be messy and damn good.

I’ll end with a quote from Raymond Carver I often think about while revising my work.  “That’s all we have, finally, the words,” he wrote, “and they had better be the right ones.”  So to all my fellow graduates, current students, the faculty, and to all writers here tonight, that’s what I wish for you as you go forth, that you find the right words as you make your mess.

What the Concept Album Can Teach Short Story Writers

Concept Albums and Connected StoriesIn the summer of 2007 on a campus in the Bread Loaf Wilderness in Ripton, Vermont, I inadvertently incited an argument between two writers.

While discussing Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker in a fiction writing workshop run by the patient and at times clairvoyant Patricia Powell she noted that Danticat’s book was a novel that could teach aspiring writers a good deal about craft.  I interjected that The Dew Breaker was actually not a novel.  The previous summer, I explained, I’d read the book with one of her colleagues in a course entitled The Contemporary American Short story.

“David Huddle,” I said, “called the text a book of connected short fiction—making the distinction that it was not a novel.”

Patricia looked at me and smiled. “Well,” she said in a soft Caribbean accent, “I’ll have to set David straight.”

Later that evening I attended a cocktail party in a nineteenth century inn where the two writers discussed, in a jovial manner I should add, their arguments.

“Each story has its own form, it’s own logic separate from the rest of the stories,” David said in his southern drawl.

Patricia responded, “David, the novel tells the story of a Haitian family’s struggles in coming to America.  The emotional impact of the book can only be experienced as a novel.”

I sipped my gin and tonic marveling at the scene I had created.  In the end, both writers agreed to disagree and floated away to other literary and not-so-literary discussions hanging in the humid air, and I was left in the conversation’s wake wondering, So what is it: a novel or a book of connected stories?  What, then, is the difference between a novel and a book of connected stories? 

That conversation stuck with me as I worked on my own collection of connected stories.  As a writer obsessed with the short story form, I wonder what exactly makes a book of connected short stories different from a novel—or even different from a book of unconnected short stories.  Where I couldn’t find definitive answers on a secluded mountain in Vermont, I believe I’ve begun to find an answer in music.

Being a musician, I started thinking about the relationship between a book of connected stories and a concept album.  Rock and roll albums are not told as novels since they most often appear as separate songs placed together on a record (or at least they used to be before the digital revolution).  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club, commonly considered the first concept album in rock, seems to me now as a work of connected stories.  Or Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks as a record whose songs inform one another, but can survive on their own when taken away from the rest of the album’s tracks.  In this light, I began to see that a book of connected stories, like the concept album, has stories that can stand alone as ‘singles,’ if you will, but spark and resonate in a new light when experienced together.

The answer, then, to the quandary of what a book of connected short stories actually is, can be found in Red-Headed Stranger, Nebraska, Blood on the Tracks, and rock and roll’s other great concept albums.

Album Review: The Coloradas

coloradas

The Coloradas, by The Coloradas

Released December 2011

We are in a full-on Folk/Bluegrass Renaissance.  From internationally successful acts like the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons to the glut of talented Americana bands here in the Portland area, it’s clear that this Americana movement is running at full tilt.  Add to this revival The Coloradas, fronted by the long-time Portland singer/songwriter Roy Davis.

For the self-titled debut album, Davis, along with song writing partner Bernie Nye, assembled a group of musicians who approach the bluegrass genre these songs are steeped in from a traditional vantage point.  However, the songs aren’t merely your granddaddy’s bluegrass.  Mandolin superstar Joe Walsh in particular keeps these songs from faltering into thin revivalist imitation with his melodic sensibility and urgent mandolin ‘chop’ keeping the backbeat on these drum-less tracks.  Walsh’s playing stands out in the first few bars of the album’s opening song, “Misery,” and doesn’t waver.  The rest of the band is sturdy in their bluegrass approach, reminiscent of Old Crowe Medicine Show and the Gillian Welch/David Rawlings duo.

Musical talent aside, an album is nothing if it doesn’t have well-built songs and melodies, and The Coloradas has both.  Davis’ voice is often compared to Ryan Adams from the Jacksonville City Nights era, and those comparisons will certainly continue after listeners here The Coloradas. (Hey, if you have to be continually compared to anyone, Ryan Adams ain’t a shabby doppelganger.)  Bernie Nye sings lead vocals on three of the albums songs and has a been-around-the-block voice.  His raspy vocal approach gives street cred to the lyrics from “Red Dress” where he sings, “Blood on the stairs, there’s blood all around / So I took a little match and I burned it down.”  The storytelling songwriting on this album is in the vein of Steve Earle and The Felice Brothers. One downfall of the songwriting is its tendency to evoke tired agrarian imagery that all Americana music seems to be drowning in.  With that said, Davis and Nye might not be potato farmers from the County, but they sure can write songs that move us.

This debut album is a strong showing from talented songwriters and a backing band with serious musical prowess.  There may be a flood of bands exploring the great Folk/Bluegrass Renaissance, but The Coloradas’ self-titled album shows they are more than revivalists, they have stories to tell and we should listen.

Joy Ride

71gmc

Jessie wanted to steal a 1973 GMC truck, like the one her father talked about before he died.  A kid at school drove one, John Michael—yeah, two first names, dumb right?  It was baby blue and he parked at the far end of the student lot.  He seemed like a nice guy.  A senior.  Jessie had never spoken with him, but she started watching him since she decided she wanted to steal his truck.  He took all honors classes.  After school he drove to work at Dunkin Donuts where he parked at the far end of that lot.  He drank ice coffee with lots of cream.  He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would harm her or her younger brother if he found out that Jessie stole his truck.

Two weeks was all it took to figure out John Michael’s habits.  She followed John Michael around during the day, and at night she watched internet videos on how to wire a car.  Turns out, cars from the ‘70’s are easy to hot wire.  Two wires, touch ‘em and the car fires up.  She tried once on her mother’s ’95 Honda Civic, and it worked.  Hammer, flat head screwdriver, wire cutters and a deep desire—that’s all it took.

It was spring and the snow banks along the roads were receding, so Jessie figured it was high time she stole that 1973, baby blue GMC dream.  Jessie discovered that the school cameras didn’t cover the far end of the student parking lot.  In her sixth period study hall, she stared at her geometry textbook absently, while her mind worked over the job.  Unscrew the lower steering column.  Locate the necessary wires—she knew the ones from reading a GMC truck owner’s manual she found on line—cut the wires, strip the casing, twist, then drive away singing to the country music station.

When there was fifteen minutes left, Jessie put the textbook in her bag, careful not to let the tools spill out in front of everyone.  She went to the front of the room to Mr. Underwood, the study hall monitor.

“Can I use the bathroom,” she said.

“There’s only fifteen minutes left of this study hall,” Mr. Underwood said over the top of his sports magazine.

“But there were sloppy joes for lunch,” Jessie said.  She jumped up and down.

“Ok, ok, I don’t need to know all of this.”  He waved her towards the door.

When she hit the student lot, she started running.  Two students she didn’t recognize sat in a Pontiac Grand Am listening to Zeppelin and smoking cigarettes.  They didn’t look up at her.

John Michael’s doors weren’t locked.  She knew they wouldn’t be.  Tossing her bag in his front seat, she grabbed the screwdriver.  She loosened the two screws holding in the lower steering column revealing the four wires.  Two connected to the starter, the other two to the battery.  The battery wires were bad news.  She chose the red wires she remembered from the internet video.  The bell was going to ring any minute, which meant the student lot would start seeing action.  With the needle nosed pliers she cut the wires.  No sparks.  That was a good sign.  She started stripping the casing off when she heard a voice behind her say, “What are you doing?”

Jessie turned and saw John Michael.  He looked bigger than she remembered.  “Um, honestly?”

“Yeah,” John Michael said.  “Honestly.”

“I’m trying to hot wire your truck.”  She flashed the pliers in his direction and smiled.

“Why?”

“My dad loved these trucks.  The boxy shape.  The way they float when you drive ‘em.”

“Ok,” John Michael said.  He was confused, but he wasn’t angry.

“Well, he died in January, and I thought it would be a nice gesture to ride around in your truck.  It’s exactly like the one he wanted.”

“Stealing my truck would be a nice gesture?  Why didn’t you just ask me to borrow it?”  The sun shined off his Red Sox hat; his bag hung from his shoulder.

“Yeah, stupid right?”

“No, I get it.”

“Really?”

“Kind of.  My grandfather died a year ago.  This was his truck.  Look,” he began, “I have a dentist appointment, that’s why I’m leaving early.  You want to go for a ride?  I’ll let you drive.”

“Is this a trick?”

“No,” John Michael said.  “I’m just glad someone else gets this truck like I do.  Most of my friends pick on me for having such an old truck.”

Jessie laughed.  “Really?”

John Michael nodded.  “How about that ride?” he said.

“Sure,” she said.  Jessie turned and connected the two starter wires and the truck engine turned over.  She jumped into the driver’s seat and looked at John Michael.  “Hop in,” she said.