Category Archives: about writing

Discusses my method of writing a particular genre.

My Short Story Statistics

After publishing my short stories on the Short Story Project site and the links to them on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr (Google Plus is going down April 2, so I didn’t bother posting there), you may find the relative rankings in terms of popularity below:

  1. Venus de Milo (17 readers)
  2. A Walk in the Desert (14 readers)
  3. The Session (11 readers)
  4. Little Boy Blue (10 readers)
  5. Investigations of a Kafkaesque Nature (10 readers)
  6. Something Happened (10 readers)
  7. An Idea for a Short Story (9 readers)
  8. Who Weeps for Cadmus? (8 readers)
  9. Heart of Tin (6 readers)

#1 is the most popular. #9 is the least popular. Of course, I have my own opinions about which stories are better and which are less so, but I can’t argue with popular opinion. Read them and let me know which stories you like best.

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The Power of Poetry

What is it about some poetry that makes such an impact on us? Of course there are those who see any and all poetry (or art for that matter) as effete snobbery and foppery, princing and prancing around on slippered tiptoes; in other words, less than useless. This is not for them. They’ve probably already clicked on something else.

Back to the power of poetry. Is it a quality of the poem itself or is it an attribute of the reader? If there are those who are impervious to poetry, then there must be others who allow themselves to be vulnerable to the subtle nuances of particular words. If they are vulnerable, then they can be moved, strengthened or weakened, created or destroyed.

But given that, what is it about a poem that can push us over the edge of our banal comfort zones? Poems are often studied in terms of their rhyme, meter (iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee, pyrrhic, and choriamb to name a few), patterns (tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, octameter, etc.) form, device, style, and figures of speech. Although certain of these poetic features can strengthen the punch of a poem, if the punch isn’t there, there’ll be nothing to strengthen; for instance, dactylic hexameter can drive home a powerful message with the galloping of horses’ hooves but the message is the rider.

Sometimes the power of a poem creeps up low and slow behind you and you don’t know what hit you until after you’ve read the last line and sometimes the power of the poem is delivered in just a couple or a few lines, the punch lines as it were.

I asked ten of my friends and relatives to tell me about the poems that had the greatest impact on them. Granted it wasn’t a statistically unbiased sample. Some of my friends are poets and some are philosophers. None of them indicated his or her own works. Here is the question I asked:

What is the most eye or heart opening, gut wrenching, life changing poem you’ve ever read?

I received back 21 powerful (to someone) poems which I analyzed in terms of their punch lines and deliveries, while examining commonalities. Here is what I encountered.

Some of the most powerful poems deliver their punch with irony in the first few lines and then soften it so that you may accept the blow and even bless it, like “On Love” from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet or “On Children” from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Others, like Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”, deliver a punch that leaves you gasping and continues raining down an onslaught of invective and praises at God, his mother, his other relatives, death, and life, that run together in a confusion of dialectical humanity that leave you reeling. To me Ginsberg’s Kaddish is far more effective in dealing with grief over the loss of a loved one than the traditional Kaddish of Judaism that only praises God and asks for peace for his children without mentioning a word about the deceased or the grief of the survivors. I would venture to say that the real power of Ginsberg’s Kaddish lies in its blasphemy, which we are forbidden to judge, since it was cried out during his mourning. Another example, this time presenting us a view of reality we seldom see, is Ocean Vuong’s “Tell Me Something Good” that starts off in the middle of a minefield and leaps between deaths. In a similar vein, yet more powerful than the previous example, is “Home” by Somali poet Warsan Shire, that pummels you with punch line after punch line about what it’s really like to be a homeless refugee that is guaranteed to wipe that cynical smile of our well-fed comfortable faces.

There are poems that deliver their punch lines at the beginning of each verse, like Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning”, for instance his “Why should she give her bounty to the dead? / What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” in his second verse or “Death is the mother of beauty” in his fifth.

Sometimes a poem seems the diametrical opposite of power, as with ee cummings’ “l(a” or “loneliness”. Its delicate vulnerability demands your vulnerability in order to respond to it. It is so small, so quiet, so singular that, if you aren’t paying attention, you miss it altogether. The power is in the unfolding of interpretations, the singularity of loneliness, the loneliness of singularity. Another example of the power of vulnerability is William Carlos Williams’ “Of Asphodel that Greeny Flower”, which begins with the poet searching for his beloved in hell (as Orpheus searched for his beloved Eurydice in the underworld of Hades) and was encouraged to find flowers also in hell, and ends saying that, although it is difficult to get something newsworthy out of poetry, “men die miserably  … for what is found there” (in poems).

A poem can be powerful without punch lines, such as “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry, when it taps into a sadness or apprehension that we all feel, in this case the trepidation of mortality and the envy of wild things that seem unaware of their own mortality, although maybe that’s wishful thinking as current evidence suggests that many animals sense death’s approach and fear it. Another example, this time of the continuing relationship of the living to the dead and the dead to the living, is “What the Living Do” by Marie Howe. There are no punch lines. The power of the poems is in the sum of the lines. Yet another example is Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” about martyring one’s soul just to be caught up in the moving grace of dancing with a beautiful woman and the greater worth of a moment with her than freedom or eternity. Sometimes the power of a poem comes in the questions posed and answers demanded by the poet of the invisible reader, such as “Scheherazade” by Richard Siken, in his last lines “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. / These, our bodies, possessed by light. / Tell me we’ll never get used to it”.

I think I need a special category just to deal with the poems of Sharon Olds who uses extraordinary means to deal with all too common subject matter, like going back in time to warn her young parents not to get married (Sharon Olds’ “I Go Back to May 1937” from The Gold Cell) or to give succor to her abusive father when he was a child abused by his own father (Sharon Olds’ “Late Poem to My Father” from The Gold Cell), traveling forward into the future to glimpse her unborn child pleading to be conceived (Sharon Olds’ “The Unborn”), and staring forlornly at the glittering air of molecules left from her small daughter as though she were beamed down to summer camp (Sharon Olds’ “The Daughter Goes to Camp”).

What else can be said about the summary power of the mystical image at the end of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from The Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time … And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flames are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.”

Finally there are poems like W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, two years before America entered the Second World War, that deliver their powerful punch at the end: “And the lie of Authority / Whose buildings grope the sky: / There is no such thing as the State / And no one exists alone; / Hunger allows no choice / To the citizen or the police; / We must love one another or die”. Auden was Anglo-American.

Poems that Had an Impact on one of the Contributors

Contributors

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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The Flying Poetry Creation Contraption

Most people are not very creative. They are very good at doing what they’re told but are often stuck in neutral when they have to figure out what to do by themselves. Even creative people have a difficult time being creative. Their creative ideas go only so far and then that well can dry up for an awfully long time. There’s a reason for that. Creativity requires a certain degree of randomness, unpredictability, or surprising yourself. It’s not something you can use logical deduction or induction to get to. It’s not linear. It’s a step function. You don’t have it, don’t have it, don’t have it, don’t have it, until Eureka! You have it. Where did it come from? Out of the clear blue sky.

Most humans are pretty good at deduction and induction, but we aren’t very good at randomness at all.

We tend to do the same things over and over, we tend to be predictable, and we don’t know how to surprise ourselves. Actually we are not as predictable as machines because of our all-too-human errors creeping into everything we do, but we don’t know how to harness those errors yet for creativity. My signature is slightly different every time I sign it. I suppose I could invent something that turned the differences in my signatures into random numbers but it’s much easier and cheaper to use a random number generator function in a MS Excel macro, which brings me to the rather strange title of this blog post: “The Flying Poetry Creation Contraption”.

I’ve programmed an Excel spreadsheet to help me freely associate my noumena (the objective world, the external world as it is) and phenomena (my subjective world, my internal representation of the world) to generate in a semi-automatic fashion ideas for poems. It’s semi-automatic because it can’t generate a finished poem, although it sometimes comes pretty close.

Here’s how it works:

  1. I created 10 categories or lists. My categories are People, Animals, Plants, Places, Time, Objects, Phenomena, Senses, Emotions, and Actions. These are the dimensions of my experience. You can make your own categories and lists.
  2. I populated each list with 31 different power words or names, different sets of words for each category. A power word is a word or name that elicits a powerful response in you when you contemplate it. Each of us has his or her own power words. I won’t share mine with you because they are internal, raw, deeply personal, and they wouldn’t have the same impact on you as they have on me. You can come up with your own power words for your own or my categories. Why 31? It’s just a number. I’ll probably increase it over time. You could start out with 6 or 12, or any other number. I’ll explain why 6 or 12 below.
  3. Then I created a function (randbetween) in Excel that generates a random integer between 1 and 31 and uses it as an index into each of the 10 lists to pull out the word at that offset. If you don’t have Excel or know how to write functions, you can use a single die or a pair of dice to generate a random number as an index into your lists. Just roll the die or dice for each list (not one time for all the lists, but once for each list).
  4. This is one of the lines I randomly generated:
People Animals Plants Places Time Objects Phenomena Senses Emotions Actions
Dad frogs orange tree woods eternity stars stories unseeing adventurous limp

Randomness is the basis for an algorithm of creativity. This is how creativity will be programmed into robots and artificial intelligence.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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100,000 Poets for Change

I have been invited to read some of my poems at an event associated with the Israeli chapter of 100,000 Poets for Change to be held in Jerusalem on November 6th at 8:30 p.m. Then I got to thinking about it.

First off, 100,000 seems like an awfully big number for poets even on a good day. I wish there were. Think of what the world could do with 100,000 Homers, Virgils, Shakespeares, Miltons, Whitmans, Eliots, Pounds, Bonnefoys, … You get the idea. Still, if I could wish for 100,000, I could wish for a million or a billion. What if everyone were a poet?

Secondly, “Poets for Change” sounds like something with a political agenda. Poets and politics don’t really mix. I remember writing a poem in Israel during the summer of 1983:

Sitting at a bus stop
outside the village of the grandfather,
attending to the quiet flickflicking
of the sprinklers in the orange grove.
My eyes rest on the concrete water tower
squatting behind the distant eucalyptus.
It seems so out of place,
Like a politician at a poetry reading.

Thirdly, what kind of change are we talking about here? Changing from what to what? It’s a common enough cry over a megaphone in mass demonstrations: the people want change! Have you ever tried to make your way through the crowd to the guy with the megaphone and ask him what kind of change does he mean exactly? The people want change! What do the people want? Change!

But seriously, what the organizers of 100,000 Poets for Change around the world want, and have wanted since the group’s inception in 2011, is real, is simple, and is worth wanting; just two things: peace and sustainability.

Peace means live and let live. Let others live even if they think differently than you. Do no harm. Be at peace with others. Be at peace with yourself. Be at peace with your planet. That would be a change. That would be the biggest change in our history.

Sustainability is kind of like what I was talking about in my previous post, “Morality and Religion“. Sustainability is Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Sustainability means doing things that, if everyone did them, would not destroy our society or our world. Peace is sustainable, if you can achieve it. War is not. When asked what weapons would be used to fight WWIII, Albert Einstein was reputed to have answered, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” This would be an even bigger change than peace.

I believe that poets, artists, and musicians are better suited than most to carry the banner of change into our future. As I wrote in Morality and Religion, “Literature, poetry, music, and art train us to feel things we’ve never felt before, to sympathize, and to empathize with anyone and anything around us.” Sympathy and empathy are what we need for peace and sustainability.

See you all at the poetry reading.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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The Book of Sadnesses

From time to time I think about Brod’s 613 Sadnesses from the magical first book of Jonathan Safran Foer called “Everything is Illuminated”. It was magical because of the magic he let loose in my head with his writing. The story is about an American Jew’s odyssey to the shtetl Trachimbrod (Trochenbrod in the Ukraine), razed to the ground by the Nazis leaving no trace at all. Brod lived and died in Trachimbrod five generations before the author reached the empty nameless fields that had been the shtetl. In the story Brod kept a diary in which she recorded the 613 Sadnesses, corresponding to the 613 Jewish dietary laws (but having nothing really to do with them besides the number). The sadnesses were lost along with her diary, except for 55 of them which were somehow transferred to her body when the wet pages of the diary stuck to her skin. The surviving sadnesses (in the story) are wonderful, beautiful, full of pathos, like a cello solo in an empty chapel, like a melody you’ve never heard before in your life but you instantly recognize. You’ll find 55 of the 613 Sadnesses on pages 211 and 212 of Foer’s book or click http://phillipsjs.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/the-613-kinds-of-sadness/.

I often think about adding sadnesses to Brod’s 55, but I just came across an interesting website, http://www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com/, written, edited, and narrated by John Koenig. It contains 113 pages of sadness and sorrow that I’ve never come across before and yet they are strangely familiar to me, as from a dream or a previous life.

The sadnesses I would add to Brod’s:

  1. The fact that the world is not perfect;
  2. The fact that the world is perfect, but I am not;
  3. The fact that there is so much exquisite beauty in the world that I will never see or hear or touch;
  4. The fact that the beauty that I create in the world will never be seen or heard or touched;

I could go on and on. Don’t get me started.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

My dad was the strongest, handsomest, smartest guy in the world; not just to a small boy growing up but also to a young pre-teenager. He was so smart he could teach me to be better than him. He did it with ping-pong (table tennis) and he did it with chess. He knew how to play just a little better than me until I got a little better, and then ratchet up his game a bit more until I got better than that. Eventually I was standing back a few feet from the table slamming the balls toward any edge or corner on his side that I wanted. Same thing happened in chess. He’d make the best move on the board but he didn’t think ahead any moves. I started making some good moves and then he thought ahead one move. Then I started thinking ahead a move and he started thinking ahead two moves. Like ping-pong, after I won my first game of chess against Dad, I never lost another game against him. Boy, was I proud of myself, but I realized how I got that way and whose debt I was in.

I didn’t read a book until I was 12 years old. I read comics voraciously, but books were too slow and … they didn’t have enough pictures in them. One night Dad and Mom entered my bedroom and gave me a book. “Here, give this a try,” Dad said. He handed me “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Hordes”. I never realized that a book could generate pictures in my brain more vivid and multi-dimensional than any comic book. After I finished Genghis Khan I tried Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Same impact on me. From then on, it’s been a love affair between books and me. I even ended up writing a few, myself. Actually, I write what I’d like to read, but can’t find.

I wasn’t very good in school. Up until seventh grade, my grades ranged between average and poor. I wasn’t good at anything, except ping-pong, chess, and drawing cartoons. The cartoons probably came from my comic book phase. Mom and Dad decided to buy me a clarinet and pay for music lessons for me. I joined the marching band at Eastmoor High School and, later the concert band and the dance band. I also learned to play tenor saxophone along the way. Of course I learned to read music. Later I began to write music too.

Back to the seventh grade, I had received a “D” (Poor) in geometry class. I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it, but I didn’t do too well in Algebra either, or Arithmetic the year before, or anything else for that matter. My teachers didn’t even write in the comments next to my grades, “he could do better.” I remember a light bulb turning on over my head while I was cracking the geometry book in my bedroom during the second six-week grading period that year. I received my first “A” (Excellent) ever in Geometry the next grading period. Suddenly all my grades became A’s. I didn’t study any harder. It just came to me. The point I want to make is that I had no idea I might be intelligent. Once I got that grade in Geometry, I knew I might be and a whole new dimension opened up for me. I’ve often wondered how many children could be “made” smart just be telling them they’re smart. That’s what I told each of my sons and all of my grandchildren, but they might have been smart anyway. I didn’t run a controlled experiment.

I wasn’t very popular in school. I never had more than one or two friends at any one time, and they were usually misfits like me. I wasn’t what you’d call a good-looking kid. I was skinny, easy pickings for the Dick Hamiltons of elementary, junior, and senior high school. I had my eyes and heart set on the Laurie Mantells and Linda Sanders of high school, but they had their eyes and hearts  pinned on the Steve Howells of the varsity team. It was a matter of survival. I couldn’t rely on my good looks or my physical prowess. The only things I might have been able to rely on were my cartoons, later my drawings and paintings, and after that my stories, music, and poetry. Maybe “they’d” let me survive, if I were good enough. Maybe the girls would look my way. I would have to say that my creativity was most probably a compensation for my lack of physical advantages. I know I would have given them up for those physical advantages in a heartbeat back then. I suppose wisdom had not graced my forehead yet.

In college I took a course in boxing and then judo. After that I never had another problem with personal survival.

I thought it might be better for my social life if I were in the company of intelligent people. I had heard about Mensa, a society of geniuses (see http://www.mensa.org/). All you had to do was pass an IQ test in the top 2 percent of your country. That meant an IQ of 148 back in the late 60’s when I was at Ohio State University. I took the test and missed it by two points. Hence the title of this post: Almost only counts in … “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades.” I always thought that intelligence was a continuous rather than a step function, but I guess you have to draw the boundary somewhere.

Actually I wasn’t very good at horseshoes or hand grenades. Somewhere between 20 and 22, I developed a bit of a tremor in my right hand. I no longer could control the ping-pong paddle like I once had done. When I’d toss a horseshoe, it would land anywhere but the stake. When I was in basic training at Fort Campbell Kentucky, I warned my drill sergeant not to make me throw a grenade. He thought I was kidding. Later, in basic training south of Beer Sheva in Israel, I had a similar situation and the same look of disbelief from that drill sergeant, but this time I was luckier.

It didn’t affect my drawing or painting though, the tremor. I guess it’s like the proverbial stutterer who sings without stuttering.

I wrote a paper for a course in psychology on the subject of whether intelligence was a function of personality or personality a function of intelligence. I think that the questions I raised were more interesting than the answers I came up with at the time. Was there such a thing as an intelligent personality? Could an intelligent person have a stupid personality because the culture in which he or she grew up did not value intelligence? During the Cultural Revolution in Communist China, Chinese citizens who wore glasses were rounded up and summarily shot because neo-Maoists believed only intellectuals wore glasses and intellectuals were a risk to the Middle Proletariat. How many times have we heard, “don’t you get smart with me, Buster”? Could a person adopt a personality to suit his needs or desires?

Dad’s intellectual capacity diminished significantly during the last seven years of his life. It was painful for me to witness it. So much for the wisdom promised us at the end of our lives. It’s a long and slippery slope. I can feel my own intelligence waning. I’m probably down to around 128 or so now, give or take a couple of points.

These days, the question that interests me most is how a person can be aware of his own diminishing intellectual capacity when his intellectual capacity is precisely what he needs to be aware of it. Kind of like the age-old philosophical problem: if you went to bed and the universe increased or decreased by a factor of 10,000 while you slept, would you be aware of it when you got up the next morning?

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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The Big Boing Theory

There are probably not many people alive on this planet who can imagine what it might be like just before the Big Bang. I mean we have a rough, if not entirely accurate, idea of what the universe (or multiverse) is, and what it was like within a second or two after it went “bang”. We’re talking about all the baryonic matter and baryonic energy, dark matter and dark energy, and anti-matter and anti-energy, space and time, as well as anything else that might be hanging like mistletoe from the continuum of what is. Incidentally, there probably wasn’t any “bang” during the Big Bang since, as my father asked me when I was seven years old, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody was around to hear it, did it make a sound? There certainly wasn’t anyone around to hear the Big Bang.

Could another Big Bang happen in our universe? Hopefully not. That’s probably why they call the Big Bang a singularity, but then they call black holes singularities too and black holes are found in many different galaxies around the universe. One of the advantages of the multiverse theory is that you can have Big Bangs going off like firecrackers all over the place all of the time, but only one per universe.

So what caused the Big Bang? Before the Big Bang you had one big nothing. No matter, no energy, no space, and no time. Just potential, one humongous potential. How long did this nothing last? How big was this nothing? These last two questions have no meaning whatsoever. Like dividing by zero. I once heard a story about what happens to one of those old Friden mechanical calculating clunkers when you try to divide by zero. The arm just flies off, killing the student sitting next to you, and the machine falls apart. Needless-to-say we were forbidden from dividing by zero on our Fridens.

I just finished reading up on the Big Crunch (Contracting Universe) and Big Bounce (cyclical Bang then Crunch ad infinitum) theories of the universe. These theories have fallen into disfavor somewhat because they seem to defy the second law of thermodynamics, something about how they allow too much heat to build up between Bang-Crunch cycles. Now that humongous potential between the last Crunch and the next Bang might be made up of potential matter, potential energy, potential space, and potential time but, the way I see it, the heat from the second law of thermodynamics should be conserved from the Crunch heat to the Potential heat to the Bang heat, neither more nor less, but exactly the same.

Because it would make no sense to ask how long the time between Crunch and Bang was, I would conjecture that it took no time at all; that is, the Big Bang occurred immediately after the Big Crunch. It would also be rational to conclude that the Big Bang was caused by the Big Crunch. It was not only the sufficient cause, it was the only cause. As Sherlock Holmes said in The Sign of the Four, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. At the time of the Big Bang there was nothing else besides the disappearing Cheshire Cat smile of the Big Crunch.

Maybe I should call my theory the Big Boing Theory. It has all the attributes of the Big Bounce Theory without the silliness of the official name. Besides, it reminds me of the similar sounding name of that stupid American television series about those three idiot-savants. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to sell the rights to a TV series about my theory. It might go viral like the sales of my latest sci-fi novel.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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