Author: John Breerwood

Culture in a Cup: An Ode to Coffee

Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter, New Orleans. Circa 2003. I took this picture at dawn with my flashy 35mm camera. This establishment is dear to the hearts of both tourists and locals.

My father-in-law has never drank a solitary drop of coffee in his whole life. It wasn’t because of any dietary restriction or doctor’s advice. It was a personal decision concerning self-reliance, based on the observation that so many people become dependent on it for simply functioning. I would say that sheer will kept him abstinent from coffee, but it is not. He’s never felt the slightest desire or even curiosity to even try it. He still gets up early in the morning without being grouchy. He’s still motivated and productive. He has a successful career as a lawyer and is very involved in his community.

Perhaps, he’s an anomaly. Perhaps there are only a select few who are born without the insatiable need for that “click” between the temples. The rest of us seem to be born without our own spark plug for ignition, needing a hard pull or two to fire the engines. At times, I am envious of him, especially when there’s no coffee available. However, other times I am not. To him, coffee is just a liquid that he has to work around. For the rest of us, it’s sublime.

Coffee was one of the first things that I equated with adulthood. My parents drank coffee in the mornings and at cafes. Family and friends would drink it before Mardi Gras morning parades. My father and an old farmer, Mr. Veltin, would have coffee just before we would go hunting on his 90 forested acres in Folsom, Louisiana. Once my parents began allowing me to have coffee once I was older, I usually embraced the opportunity to sit at the table among adults. Of course, I say that now. Back then, it was probably all about the sugar. I’d dump so much that it never fully dissolved: brown and grainy like a sandy river bed in my cup.

I later scaled back on the sugar, eventually switching to honey at the recommendation of a friend, and then gradually eliminating it all together. Full disclosure: I did sweeten it sometimes with spiced rum (Old New Orleans Rum or Bayou Rum preferably) as any self-respecting New Orleans bartender would do. The milk or cream still remains a mainstay for me, though. I can drink it black when needed, but I didn’t enjoy it as much. I used to justify my cream addition to hardcore purists and say it was because the milk helped cut the acid. But, in the end, I just liked it better that way. The powdered creamer; however, is no viable substitute for me. Not after I read the first ingredient of the coffee “creamer:” Corn Syrup Solids. Since then, I have not allowed that chemical powder to corrupt my joe.

One thing my dad always told me is that I am a “doer,” as opposed to people that talk about accomplishing or experiencing things but never do so. I’m just now realizing how right he was because I continue to find myself overwhelmed with projects and responsibilities. And it’s not letting up, even if I have the power to stop it. I published Sinking Dixie in November and on the second round of prints (available for sale here!), and I plan on start actively promoting it this year. I just started writing for LA Metro Magazine to add to my freelancing hustle at Maine Brew & Beverage Guide and Activities of Maine Magazine. I taught an adult-ed virtual creative writing class. That was on top of swim coaching, teaching high school English, and raising a toddler during the pandemic, and I still am looking for more things to do.

So, I guess I never really needed coffee in the first place either. I was always an early riser, except for the periods when I worked late hours as a bartender and brewer, of course. I did actually need coffee to function in the daytime in those days. I do not miss that. Coffee was also necessary to stay awake when I worked nights at the Abita and Shipyard breweries. Drinking coffee at midnight can be discombobulating at best. 

For most self-proclaimed coffee drinkers that I’ve met, the brewed beverage is like a lifelong companion to encourage you when you’re tired, hungover, or listless. It is also there among friends when you gather for brunch or when you’re a house guest. It can be a mutual friend that crossovers effortlessly the social roadblocks and boundaries we arbitrarily set for ourselves. It’s a common denominator among economic, racial, regional, or whatever boundaries. Coffee also can be there to help rekindle a friendship and even help atone or apologize to save a friendship.

Granted, it is a drug. Anything with an addictive nature is. Don’t most “drugs” start as medicines? Like any medicine, too much can be harsh one the body, if not detrimental. Regardless, it has a healing effect, which might be completely mental or socially constructed. But, hell, what isn’t for us at this point?

Coffee is a staple in many places as a cultural commodity. Sure, I’ve been to places where people view coffee as a mode to get here or there, but a community’s coffee culture can tell a lot about its identity and what it values. For New Orleanians, it’s not just a cup to get them up after a fun night. It’s a representation of local pride. New Orleans has always been inherently resistent to being fully “Americanized.” It even has its own style that is unique to the city such as chicory coffee, which is much more rich and strong (flavorwise) then most coffee. Most folks eventually get their grinds-water ratio down to a science. Well, as with just about everything, New Orleans marches (or should I say second lines) to the beat of their own tune. Once when I returned home from New Mexico, I made a pot at my parents’ house with the ratio I would do with whatever generic coffee a poor grad student could afford. What resulted was a potion so potent and acril that it could have been born from the alchemist mania in days of yore, not in a small kitchen in Metairie. 

Coffee became engrained into the city’s culture, being one of the first ports to receive coffee beans from the Carribean or South America. Chicory coffee took hold out of necessity, however. According to K. Annabelle Smith of Smithsonian Magazine, “During the American Civil War, Louisianians looked to adding chicory root to their coffee when Union naval blockades cut off the port of New Orleans. With shipments coming to a halt, desperate New Orleanians looking for their coffee fix began mixing things with coffee to stretch out the supply.” In Sinking Dixie, coffee is very limited too for locals returning to the blighted areas. Huey tries to stretch the supply by mixing tree bark in the grounds just as New Orleanians turned to chicory in the first place. I don’t imagine that the characters would voluntarily drink tree-bark coffee, much less make it a tradition. I did want to show the creative flexibility that the city’s residents possess to continue enjoying the finer things in life.

Cafe au lait which is half chicory coffee and half piping HOT milk. When you think coffee couldn’t get any hotter, cafe au lait is like java lava. I remember once scolding my tongue and the roof of my mouth so that I couldn’t taste anything until the next morning. But, cafe au lait is not just a drink, it’s an experience. Anyone who’s been to New Orleans knows that beignets are the thing to get, especially at the iconic Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter where patrons sit in a covered patio catty corner from Jackson Square, viewing the city bustling along N. Peters and Decatur. Well at least, they should. In reality, the line gets so long by midmorning, the eating patrons see a wall of impatient, aspiring patrons. It wasn’t always like that. When I was much younger, a table was usually available with little wait, if at all. It never fails to amaze me that a place, which has (well, at least it did then) only one food item (beignets) and four beverages (cafe au lait, water, orange juice, and milk) on the menu, could draw such a large crowd willing to wait in the hot sun for quite possibly the most limited menu in a city that prides itself on diverse cuisine. It is an authentic New Orleans experience; however, I can’t help but think it is ironic.

Morning Call, when it was in City Park, was one of my favorite spots for beignets. Spacious outside seating, live oaks and the Peristyle nearby, and much easier parking options. It is actually a Cafe Du Monde now, and it is still on my list when we travel back to the city.

The coffee culture in New Orleans goes deeper than just chicory, since not every coffee shop exclusively sells chicory coffee or cafe au lait. Regardless, the coffee scene there is a representation of how much the city wants to remain local and funky. There are a few of the big national chains scattered about the cityscape, but eclectic local shops make up the caffeinated bloodstream fueling that beat on the street: Cafe Envie, Rue De La Course, Cafe Rose Nicaud, Mojo, Neutral Ground Coffee House, Fair Grinds, and Lakeview Brew to name a few. Even the local chains such as PJ’s and CC’s may not be as funky, but still exude a homey, local feel. Other notable shops just outside of the city limits include Royal Blend (Old Metairie, though sadly the one in the French Quarter closed down), Common Grounds (Gretna, where actually the character of Huey was created), Kona Coffee (Mandeville), Abita Roasting Company (Madisonville and Covington), and St. John’s Coffeehouse (Downtown Covington).

This coffee identity was worth capturing in Sinking Dixie. How could I not? Heck, I spent time writing the book in all of the places that I listed above at some point. The focus on coffee as cultural identity is emphasized, however, in Mira’s narrative, as it shows the vicious competition in where big corporations have tried (and are always trying) to squash the local folks. In the book, a Boston-based corporate giant, Greylock’s, seeks to capitalize on the city’s “Refounding” and establish dominance early in the recovery. Mira eventually learns that Greylock’s buys out her favorite quirky coffeehouse, Toddy’s BuzzBar, and plan to bulldoze the building to establish an employee parking lot. Mira even meets with the regional manager in hopes to circumnavigate the infuriatingly bureaucratic  city permitting process for her St. Joseph’s Altar event. As she waits for her meeting with the executive, she buys a coffee, but the menu is confusing because the word “coffee” is only in the item “coffee cake.” Furthermore, she must pay extra for black coffee since everything is already pre-made and flavored. Mira overhears a conversation between two men talking about the importance of the local community. One man says, “I mean, the only way to save this city is to buy local, support local businesses. If we don’t we lose everything” (249). Thinking it ironic that they would say that in a corporate chain coffee house and not a local one, she interjects and suggests that they go to Toddy’s BuzzBar instead of Greylock’s. The men seem annoyed and mildly offended at her request, saying that his oddly orange cup of joe is still his “ol’ standby.” I had a very similar interaction with two men at a Starbucks in Santa Fe, NM. At this particular location, you can see two other Starbuck’s in the distance. I recommended my “ol’ standby” local coffee shop, Tribes, and they dismissed me immediately. How dare I suggest keeping it local, when they, in fact, weren’t. To be clear, the times when I find myself in a corporate coffee chain, I don’t give unsolicited advice about going to a local competitor. However, I thought that maybe they didn’t know about it, and they repaid me not in kind. That’s fair, I guess. I don’t take unsolicited advice kindly either, especially for something mundane like coffee choices. To be further clear, I’m not saying patronage to large corporate chains should be avoided at all costs, but maybe don’t gush publicly about how you “keep it local” when you’re not sitting in a locally-owned cafe. Chances are, there’s probably a more local option up the street.This development in the novel was also born from many failed attempts by corporations to change the coffee paradigm. I remember at some point in the late 90s or early 2000s that businesses attempted to establish themselves in prominent spaces like Jackson Square, presumably to starve out the iconic Cafe Du Monde. This, I thought, could mark the beginning of the end of New Orleans culture if that happened. I said to myself that I would protest outside with a sign saying, “drink local.” They never really established themselves, but you now see the fumes of the fire that led me to write the novel in the first place. 

If coffee is a feature that marks the end of a culture, it can also mark the beginning. As Ridge writes in the prologue of Sinking Dixie, “There is little difference between the ‘beginning’ and the ‘end’ of anything. It’s just perspective. You can tell a lot about people by whether they think something has either begun or ended” (3). I think that’s true with coffee culture as well. Granted, coffee is everywhere, so a new eclectic coffee shop doesn’t introduce coffee to a town. But, it does provide an excellent place for conversation, for productivity, for growth. I find one of the first things that edges a struggling historic district toward revitalization is a quality coffee shop. A quality coffee shop exudes an organic experience and connection within the town. The coffeehouse can almost be the initial draw. Forage Market (Lewiston, ME), Cafe Nomad (Norway, ME), The Little Dog (Brunswick, ME), St. John’s Coffeehouse (Covington, LA), and Traveler’s Cafe (Las Vegas, NM—yes, New Mexico. It existed long before Las Vegas, Nevada, y’all). For smaller towns or neighborhoods, these places are more than just a place to buy a cup of joe. They are symbols of who they are or who they want to be. Symbols of what they value, from the pictures on the wall to the source of their ingredients. Symbols of how discourse can change the course of history. Modern-day Saxon mead halls if you will, minus the mead (and the blood and guts) of course. Humans since have concocted other elixirs like coffee to fuel our “dream state,” resulting in someone writing a chapter of a novel or creating a business plan or collaborating on a community initiative as opposed to swinging swords and exchanging appendages for honor.  Hyperbole? Absolutely. Maybe the caffeine is kicking in. But, what better place to help people make sense of themselves and who they are, then a neighborhood coffee house. 

But, why spend so much time writing a blog about coffee? It’s because, to my dismay, drinking coffee is not agreeing with my body anymore. It’s not an allergy, but perhaps an intolerance. I can probably drink one or two cups per week without discomfort, but dear god not daily anymore. As a result I am embracing the tea culture that seems to be under the radar for many red-blooded Americans. Luckily, the world of tea is endless and eternal, and I am enjoying it immensely. So, perhaps this is the time when my heavenly affliction to the roasted bean ends and when my embrace of the fermented leaf begins? If so, then I’ll be weaning myself off of the sublime enhancement of coffee. In grad school at New Mexico Highlands University, I realized that my excessive coffee consumption might have a correlation with my increasing blood pressure. I hadn’t yet developed stomach discomfort, but I understood that my coffee days were limited. I wrote in a class that “a world without coffee is cold and sleepy.” I stand by that. Even hot tea doesn’t give me that “click” between the temples sometimes.

So, I must reside myself to writing this blog post as if a lifelong friend has either passed away or become estranged. The next time you sit down and savor a hot cup of coffee, regardless of where you do it, say hello for me.

Works Cited:

Breerwood, J.G. Sinking Dixie. Maine Authors Publishing: Thomaston, ME. 2020.

Smith, K. Annabelle. “The History of the Chicory Coffee Mix that New Orleans Made Its Own.” Smithsonian Magazine. March 5, 2014.

 

Novel Published!

And, for some positive news to cap off this tumultuous year of 2020, my novel, Sinking Dixie, is finally published! If you have read previous posts on this blog, you may notice that I have replaced the working title (“Pro Bono Publico”) in order to avoid any copyright issues. It worked out for the best because the current title fits both the literal (coastal erosion and subsidence) and metaphorical (modernization vs. cultural survival) situation of New Orleans.

It’s been quite a wild ride over the last decade, since the first image sparked in my head after an evening meeting at Stein’s Deli on Magazine Street in New Orleans, where the deli owner, the owners of the then-newly opened NOLA Brewing, a beer blogger, and other craft beer advocates discussed how they could bring in more craft beer to the city. It’s hard to imagine that they even had to do that, the brewing industry being the way it is today. I was writing an article about NOLA Brewing for Where Y’At Magazine at the time, and the owner invited me to the meeting at Stein’s Deli so that I could better understand the state of the city’s brew scene. I was glad to be there; however, I didn’t have much to contribute unlike the other attendees who were business owners either selling craft beer or brewing it. I liked the clandestine communal feel about the meeting. Afterwards, something sparked in my head: a small scene of two groups meeting in the woods exchanging firearms and ammunition. The meeting at the deli did not even mention guns or ammunition, but somehow my head filled that part in. Even though that scene never made it into the final manuscript, it set things in motion. Since then, I wouldn’t allow myself to let it stop.

I tell my creative writing students that the hardest things to do in writing are: 1) to begin a story, and 2) to finish the story. However, there’s the fog of publication that surrounds all aspiring writers in a cloud of anxiety and uncertainty. In actuality, the writing process is the fun part despite its snags, blocks, heartburn, and coffee jitters. The publishing process is enjoyable as well as I had the opportunity to make most of the decisions on both content and cover art with Maine Authors Publishing. It’s that part in the middle that’s torture. Querying agents, submitting to university presses, and entering literary contests without much response (if any at all) is what you do in Hell. It’s much like submitting resume after resume without even a rejection, but this is different. It’s your lifeblood. Your contribution to the ongoing human discourse. In “O Me! O Life!,” Walt Whitman ends his poem with an indirect call to action. He says:

That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

For fans of the film Dead Poets Society, this excerpt may sound familiar. As Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) recites this passage to his students, he even takes it a step further: he asks “What will your verse be?” As an aspiring novelist, I felt that my “verse” was being blocked from this “powerful play” we call life. What could I do? At least when I was drafting my novel, I was in control. Then, I happened upon Maine Authors Publishing, an independent publisher located in Thomaston, Maine. They provide professional editing, layout and design, printing services, and marketing assistance. For Maine writers jonesing to contribute their verses, I recommend checking them out. It has been great working with the staff during the process, and the final product is of high quality. For aspiring writers elsewhere in the U.S., I would recommend looking into any independent publishers in your region if you’re not getting anywhere with agents or traditional publishers. If you are tired of telling people that you wrote a novel but it’s not published (like I was), you may want to go the independent publishing route. However, be careful about contacting predatory vanity publishers because they sense our desperation like sharks searching for maimed prey.

To clarify, independent publishing is NOT self publishing. With the former, you get most of the professional services you would with a big publisher. You do have to pay for it; however, you keep control and ownership of your work, which is important to me. So, you get the quality of traditional publishing and the control and ownership of self-publishing. To me, it’s a win-win. You do have to pay for the services, unlike with traditional publishers. But, like any worthwhile venture, an initial investment is necessary.

If you are interested in learning more about Sinking Dixie (or to purchase it online), click HERE. If you live in Maine and would like to support a local bookstore, Gulf of Maine Books (Brunswick) and The Book Review (Falmouth) have it on the shelves; however, I’m hoping to add more to this list soon. If you live in New Orleans, I’m working on getting them on the shelves there too, just stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, you’ll have to order it online.

So, for you aspiring writers out there, just keep writing and keep trying. As Ray Bradbury asserts in the preface of Zen in the Art of Writing, “Writing is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that. Not to write, for many of us, is to die” (xii).

Never Cease to Love: an ode to New Orleans

It’s practically the end of 2018, and I’m just now writing about New Orleans during its highly anticipated tricentennial year. The original goal this year was to publish Pro Bono Publico. What better way to celebrate the founding of the Crescent City than by releasing a novel that talks of its undoing, or “Refounding” as they call it in the book? Next year is the year for self-publication, but I’ll keep everyone posted about that later. For now, however, I can’t help but reflect how the iconic city shaped me as a writer.

Where do you start writing about a place that hemorrhages creative energy in every form imaginable? I don’t write much about the Crescent City these days, so this blog post is long overdue. Funny how leaving a place gives you a different perspective. But, I’ll leave you with this blog for now, describing how New Orleans shaped me as a writer in the three following ways: 1) an influential teacher, 2) Hurricane Katrina, 3) and living in an Uptown neighborhood for two years.

 

The Switch

I always had stories brewing in my gut as early as I can remember, and those stories looked for ways to escape into the world. At first, I drew my characters and their stories on paper. It wasn’t until mid-high school when I started expressing myself through poetry to deal with those teenage years of heartache and insecurity. Eventually, I began to connect those inner stories with the mighty pen. There was one problem, however. I didn’t see the value in reading. That’s problematic even if you’re not aspiring to be a writer as a life goal. It’s like someone wishing to be a brewmaster but refusing to drink a beer.

Junior year of high school, my English teacher (who was an aspiring writer himself) said that if I wanted to write, then I had to read. Considering that I had been weaseling out of reading assignments my whole life, I probably wasn’t one of his favorite students. Though this answer was not the one I wanted, it was certainly the one that I needed. Great teachers have a knack for that. I begrudgingly took Mr. Loehfelm’s advice and began to attempt to read for…fun. Yuck, right? Can you even imagine?

Turns out, that was all it took: imagination, which was not in short supply. Just maybe misguided a bit. Simply visualizing the story in my head, instead of eyeing the words and dismissing them as strangers in the hallway, was enough to make me hangry for knowledge. I even took Mr. Loehfelm’s creative writing class my senior year where he helped me stretch my creative boundaries. Bill Loehfelm later won the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and became one of the city’s most successful novelists.

It wasn’t New Orleans, per se that helped me pull the trigger on my writing prowess, but an expatriate from New York. He made me realize that if I wanted to sing, I first needed to inhale.

 

The Bitch

It’s hard to convey how much Hurricane Katrina (or the “K-Bitch” as I called it in many Where Y’At articles) formed the backbone of Pro Bono Publico. During the event and the immediate aftermath, my mind wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until a few years later when the characters and premises began popping up. The horror, fright, and uncertainty just needed time to digest, I guess. The military presence, the feeling of abandonment, the resilient reinforcement that followed, the witness of nature’s destruction, the witness of man’s destructive nature in the wake of fear, and the unforgettable smell of mold and maggots may make for great storytelling; however, I wish that I had none of it whatsoever. I still meet people whose eyes light up with envy when I say that I “was there” for Katrina. Stop, people. Seriously, stop. And, saying that you “were there” to someone from/living in New Orleans is entirely different than telling someone from away the same thing. To New Orleanians, being there meant being stuck and abandoned in the wake of the storm. To the everyone else, just simply experiencing Katrina firsthand (which includes evacuation) quantifies as being there. My uncle spent 7 days on his roof in a tent before he was airlifted out. My sister worked in a hospital, mostly without power. They were there for Katrina. Despite my own struggles, I evacuated before the levees broke, so I “wasn’t there.” But, if I say that to someone from away, they think that I wasn’t even living anywhere near the storm at the time. Hell, maybe I should just let people think that.

The recovery period (circa 2006 to 2009) set the stage for the zealous restructuring of identity of self and city. People who left the city then hated themselves, whereas those people who stayed hated themselves for sticking with a wasteland that the nation didn’t care about anymore. You think I lie. You’d be surprised what vile things people said to our faces or wrote in the newspapers about us and the city while knowing full well of our situation. Residents put their city before themselves. Escape or departure, unlike in iconic New Orleans novels such as A Confederacy of Dunces and The Moviegoer, was now nothing short of a tragedy. The ship needed retrieval from dark waters and its breached hull needed patchwork. And, if you weren’t all in, then jump ship, bub, because you’re dead weight. That’s why New Orleans is where it is today. That Spartan-like commitment.

Along with this unrelenting social contract, cultures clashed since everyone has their own epitome of New Orleans. “Local” became interpretive. Expats living in Orleans Parish and multi-generational families in the suburbs saw (probably still see) each other as a false representation of the city. The contentious relationship between Joshua and Huey shows this. Back then, gas station owners, neighborhood grocers, and bartenders (I know from experience) suddenly found themselves in positions of power. This development gave rise to characters like Fitzmorris, Ridge, and Renny Rooney.

 

The Itch

In the summer of 2008, my brother asked me if I wanted to move Uptown (Irish Channel/Lower Garden District section) because he was buying into a bar on Prytania Street. I then felt an itch for what New Orleans had to offer me. I had experienced New Orleans in many ways, but I hadn’t lived in an iconic neighborhood as that.

There was something about that time that was quite transcendental. Those two years paved the way for my life in two ways: 1) I met my wonderful wife; 2) I generated the creative foundation for what became Pro Bono Publico. If I hadn’t lived Uptown right then, who knows where I would be. Those two years really set the course. It’s really easy to ingratiate ourselves in thinking that we control our own futures and destinies, but sometimes it seems like an organic development with our retroactive consent. Or, I guess, regret for some people.

My brother and I moved into an apartment on Magazine and Washington, at the seam of the Lower Garden District and the Irish Channel. I shed my suburban shell and really embraced the city lifestyle. I walked as much as I could. Hopped on a bike or the streetcar for longer trips. Excellent coffeehouses for random conversation and productive writing (particularly the former Magazine location of Rue De La Course). Restaurants and po-boy shops galore. Superb taverns for buffoonery and…attempts at productive writing. I settled on Choppy’s name in the middle of a cold pint and a smooth cigar at Dos Jefes Cigar Bar upon sighting the Tchoupitoulas sign on the wall. Just about everyone you met on the street was a creative mind feeding off that energy vibrating off everywhere and everything. On several occasions, I saw Bill Loehfelm at the coffee shops. I ended up bartending with one of the band members of The Revivalists. I met fire dancers, musicians, filmmakers, brewers, chefs, painters, and anything else you can think of. The ample opportunities to live life made it difficult to stop and write of course. Carpe diem: great for living, bad for writing.

I worked as the only instructor at a GED center across the river from New Orleans then. I could take my bike across the Jackson Street Ferry (no longer operating). A young black man worked on the ferry, and I sort of imagined him as a young Choppy, which is where Choppy’s backstory and profession originated. Sometimes, I’d stop at Common Grounds Cafe (on Huey P. Long Street in Gretna)  to jot down some initial novel ideas. I became acquainted with a cranky regular, who was the inspiration for Huey. His background as a tattooed war veteran comes from a friend who I would bartend with later.

The experience of teaching at the Youth Career Center and at Dillard University (much later) drove much of Mira’s narrative. And, how Mira developed rapports with her students as best she could.

The spark for Pro Bono Publico came at an evening meeting about beer at Stein’s Deli. It wasn’t really a secret meeting, but it felt like it. I was moonlighting as a beer writer for Where Y’at Magazine, and the owner of the newly opened NOLA Brewing company invited me. I walked a few blocks to Stein’s where a small group of people discussed how they can get better craft beer into New Orleans by educating distributors in hopes to improve the beer culture. Looking back, I was a little out of my league at the meeting. Retailers and brewers with heavy stake in the game were there, and then you had me: a newbie writer who liked beer. However, that communal commitment to the city stuck with me. New Orleans residents had to take care of each other and fix things themselves because no one else was up to task.

A scene entered my head: two groups moving through the woods towards each other, one lugging backpacks full of ammunition and the other carrying unloaded guns. Eventually they met in the middle and exchanged commodities, so they all were at the ready for some kind of conflict. That scene was centric to Ridge’s narrative for earlier versions of the story. I even wrote an elaborate battle sequence between the residents and the Manchac Pirates. That sounds awesome, sure, but it posed several developmental hurdles and probably delayed the novel’s progress for a few years because I just couldn’t let it go. If anyone is interested in reading that novella version, you can read it at the New Mexico Highlands University’s library as my master’s thesis.

In most places, people are socially conditioned, but New Orleanians are more unconditionally social. That quality has shaped me not only as a writer but also as a man. So, happy 300th birthday New Orleans! I thank you for all you’ve given me. Hopefully, I can give something back to you via Pro Bono Publico, when it is published of course. And, even though I don’t live there anymore, I still love and miss you.

 

 

 

 

Truth be told or shown?

If you ever had the benefit (or burden, depending on your experience) of taking a creative writing class, the “Show, not tell” Commandment needs no introduction. If not, I’ll save us all some words and just tell you what that is. Many of us remember “the Show and Tell” game from play school where we brought in a toy or project and then proceeded to talk about the object. Skip ahead about ten or fifteen years when we needed to stop crying and screaming and look for alternative forms of expression, like writing. One of the first lessons you learn while writing creatively is that you must “show” the reader your message via symbolism, dialogue, or scene in order to achieve great writing. And, simply telling your reader shows a literary laziness or a lack of complexity.

Okay, I can’t help it; I’ll show you an example of what I mean. In Chapter 3 of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck shows a land tortoise persisting through a harsh natural environment, which is likened to a war zone. He says of the land: “…every seed armed with an appliance of dispersal, twisting darts and parachutes for the wind, little spears and balls of tiny thorns, and all waiting for animals and for the wind, for a man’s trouser cuff or the hem of a woman’s skirt, all passive but armed with appliances of activity, still, but each possessed of the anlage of movement” (14). He then presents the tortoise’s unwavering persistence to traverse this competitive, unrelenting environment which changes from an agricultural field to an embankment and a newly paved road. The turtle fights its way up the concrete wall onto the hot concrete in the lane of an oncoming car. The female driver swerves into the other lane to miss the turtle. A truck then approaches in the opposite lane, and the male driver deliberately swerves to kill the turtle (the turtle is clipped but lives).

So, what does this all tell us? Steinbeck never explained himself; just gave us a scene, detailed down to the dust and the screech of the tires. It’s an allegory about the human experience. Humans are caught in the crossroads of an unforgiving natural world and a developing, industrial world that is just as harsh and unrelenting. The turtle’s struggle up the embankment and over the concrete wall of the road can represent the human struggle to climb the socio-economic ladder. Furthermore, we can infer that if we persist and achieve that feat, we are still at the mercy of people who are far more powerful than us. Furthermore, human nature is kind of a crapshoot since anyone can either be innately benevolent or malevolent. All we can do really is to stay positive and strong in order to survive through it all. And, what about a commentary about gender? Is he saying that women are genuinely more nurturing than men, who may be more destructive by nature?

That’s much more eloquent and insightful than just saying “damn, y’all, we screwed.” And much more long-lasting? I’ll go on a limb here and say that the turtle allegory will outlive about 99% of the posts on the “Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness” (which is what I’ve been calling Facebook lately).

That novel was published in 1939, and people today tend to refer to the days before smart phones as the “old days.” America was so different back then, except for the volatile relationship between citizens and capitalists, of course. So all the little things have changed since Steinbeck’s career, but not the major thing. Sure, most of us are lucky enough to have fancy phones or semi-decent cars or air-conditioners. But, in the end, we’re all broke with no fix in sight, no matter how hard we work.

So, I just wrote 503 words citing and analyzing a literary reference while generating a complex claim concerning inherent faults of economics by using historical context. And, all Steinbeck had to do was show a goddamn turtle trudge from point A to point B.

I’m not writing this blog post to claim it is better to show than to tell. It’s really all relative to what the writer wants to emphasize. But, one major difference between 1939 and 2018 is that people live at a much faster pace. Which makes me ask: Do writers have time to show? Do readers have time to dissect the allegory?

As an aspiring writer, I need to carve out time while juggling a full-time job (or at least try finding work as of now) and maintaining a happy household. Do I have time to show everything I want to? My current unpublished novel, Pro Publico Bono, is over 400 pages, and I did my best to show more than I told. It’s taken me a near decade to finalize it. At that rate, I have only about four more novels left in my life to write. I have more novels in me. The ideas are already backed up, like box cars in an overcrowded rail yard. After a while the hobos move on, but the cars remain, jointed with no engine awaiting a destination and depreciating over time. If I can squeeze out two paragraphs, it’s a good day. Nevertheless, these fictitious characters continue to bang on the inner walls of my skull, clamoring for the freedom that I have promised them. Do I just release them prematurely without giving them a proper foundation to survive in an oversaturated literary world? Should I bother with wonderful metaphors like Steinbeck’s tortoise and just tell the reader what I’m feeling? If I abandon the “show” all together, then I compromise the cherished author/reader autonomous relationship where the author presents an artistic piece so that the reader can use his/her intuition to figure things out in their own convoluted way. To be curt, writers who do not respect the intelligence of their readers have no business being writers.

As a reader, I need to carve out more time to read as well. If I get through four books a year, I’m doing well. Granted, I still have more time and energy to leisurely read now than in my college writing instructor days. But still, I can read double that if I had a little more time. I rarely watch television shows and movies anymore because I have prioritized writing and reading.

Better yet, it seems that many contemporary fiction writers tell awfully more than they show, and I’m including National Book Award winners and bestsellers. So why do we keep acting like showing is always better than telling when you can pick up a major publication or an acclaimed author, and yet the “fiction” is nothing but an insightful summary?

It is not a secret that creative nonfiction has been outselling fiction for a while. Perhaps there’s a correlation. Maybe readers want to hear the truth from the horse’s mouth, even if the horse turns out to be an ass. (To be clear, telling more than showing in non-fiction is 100% acceptable, in my opinion. I’m not implying that fiction writers are superior to non-fiction writers. All writers are egoistical asses, let’s face it.) Non-fiction triggers the human soul a little differently than fiction does; however, fiction presents itself as a manifestation of some unfortunate truths or fears (like The Jungle or 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird) that non-fiction can’t.

I see it today even in titles of articles. I miss the days of clever titles that are practically a work of art on their own. Now they simply tell us what the article is about in a childish way. Seriously, the “Melancholy and Infinite Sadness” is loaded with articles titled “What you need to know about ______” or “What you didn’t know about _____ and what you can do about it” or “Why you should be mad about _____” or “13 Reasons why you should _____”. Hell, even the articles are more bulleted lists than refined content these days.

So, if the show must not go on, something wicked may be coming our way. Something far worse than shattering the ego of aspiring writers. Is this a moment when writers and readers are consenting to a less critical discourse? Is the capitalist leviathan now creeping into our minds and altering how it processes and produces written fiction? If that’s the case, than reading will simply be synonymous with consumption whereas writing will become nothing more than production.

Steinbeck chose his title for The Grapes of Wrath by selecting it from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The verse goes:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.”

The truth is always better told when shown. And, Good Lord, I hope some sort of glory or salvation is coming our way because if not…damn, y’all, we screwed.

 

“An English Major? What Are You Going to Do with That?”

“Employers really don’t care what you have a degree in. Just as long as you have a degree.” Remember that old saying?  Today, that old saying is as dated as an audio cassette tape, because you don’t hear it anymore.

When I graduated from Louisiana State University in May 2005, I interviewed for a job that recruited conventions to New Orleans. I didn’t have experience in marketing, sales, account management, or business administration. All I had really was a B.A. in English, some bartending experience, and a brief internship for a small magazine. That was it. Turned out, the hiring manager was more interested in my bartending jobs more than anything because that was proof to him that I had people skills. They didn’t end up hiring me, but at least they gave me a shot. 

When I graduated from New Mexico Highlands University in the Summer of 2012 with a M.A. in English, however, the workforce rabbit hole had deepened and was far more nebulous to navigate. I applied to positions that required specific degrees with 7 to 9 years minimum experience in a respective field. And, the “hard skills” weren’t even enough. They expected candidates to have every “soft skill” imaginable as well. In other words, not only do employers expect you to have a specific degree, but also they expect you to have the work ethic of an automaton with more personality than Number “Johnny” Five. One component was usually missing. If I had the experience, I lacked the degree. If I had the degree, they preferred someone with different experience.

I had a M.A. in English, 4.0 GPA, experience in teaching, management, journalism, warehouse, sales, publishing, radio, construction, service industry, and community service. Yet, it seemed most employers weren’t even reading my resume.  People aren’t perfect, but resumes surely need to be in order for anyone to land an interview. Each resume should be tailored for each job that you apply for, and I have written far more resumes and cover letters than fiction. You practically have to be born for a job, or bred for it, in order to get one.

Ironically (or serendipitously perhaps) I landed a fledging career in the brewing industry. I still am a beer writer on the side, but lugging 44# hop boxes, lifting 55# malt bags, operating deafening machines, and handling harsh chemicals is how I make a living wage. And still, the brewing industry has gotten increasingly competitive whereas a strong back and an aspiring palette are no longer enough to be a brewer. But, I digress. Another topic for another time.

Most jobs don’t list an English degree as a requirement or, hell, even a preference. That’s quite understandable for the private sector, right? How can my knowledge of Hemingway possibly benefit your business, right? Well, English majors develop many soft skills that many jobs seek: time management, proven oral and written communications skills, the ability to hit deadlines under pressure, creativity, cultural and social awareness, problem solving aptitude, critical and analytical skills, and more. Interpersonal skills, well, by that point they are what they are. If someone is less personable than a carton of raisins even after college, nothing can really change that. Every scholastic discipline has its share of major jerk-faces and jack-wagons. I’m not saying that an English degree exclusively makes someone a prodigy either. Like all other degrees, plenty of people limp along and somehow emerge with a degree and continue to be prove themselves to be as useless as a ripped screen window during mosquito season. Sorry if I’m being insensitive. Actually not really, since everyone probably immediately thought of at least one person when they read that.

Perhaps most people look at us English majors as people who just know a lot about Shakespeare? While that might be true, we don’t sit around a classroom talking about how great Hamlet is. We read and analyze. We write and argue. We create. English majors read between the lines very well, and that’s just something employers themselves are failing to do these days. Reading a resume thoroughly is very important for employers, but several hiring managers only look for specific degrees or job titles due to the amount of applicants. It’s ironic that an applicant needs to apply through “Human Resources” when the hiring process is frequently anything but human. Certain keywords get filtered through a computer program in many cases, so managers are getting non-human results. Job posts these days are too jargony for their own good as well. Buzzwords like “develop,” “coordinate,” and “collaborate” seem like simple verbs. When you use them in a convoluted way, however, they seem to lose their meanings. If a job post says: “The ability to coordinate and develop collaborative strategies and applications for professional development that encourages involvement and cohesion,” you should ask yourself: Would I be coordinating people or strategies? What specifically is being professionally developed? I swear, this kind of language drove me nearly to Ludicrous Speed as I traversed the galaxy of job postings. The more job posts I read the more I imagined HAL’s computerized voice from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So, I can’t help but wonder: Are hiring managers pitching my resume in the trash as soon as they see my English degree at the top of the page? I had the displeasure over the years to be asked: “An English degree? What are you going to do with that?” If the average person poses this question, I’d have to speculate that many employers think the same. We English majors know why we got the degree, and what we got out of it. We chose to embrace something else that we felt was much more important to us than a potential paycheck. We majored in ourselves and others, not the relentless gears of an industry. Mark Edmundson wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.” If anything, I know more people who regret foregoing their passions and majoring in so-called “marketable” degrees for a career they have grown to loathe.  

I’ll admit, English majors are not qualified for everything. Industries, like the medical field or engineering, require intensive knowledge and speciality training that don’t come easy to right-brained people. So, I am not saying someone with an English major would be a good doctor or an accountant. However, many jobs out there are not so exclusive. In the end, this world is comprised of broad relationships between people and products, people and their governments, and people and their clients. It is not a coincidence that English is classified as being a “humanity” since it is the broad study of the human experience on a variety of contexts. The novels and stories we read are results from things like economics, racism, political upheaval, gender inequality, and psychoanalysis. In short, we study how the world turns.

As far as oral communication goes, English majors usually give presentations, and graduate students participate at professional conferences. The audiences at these presentations ask plenty of hard questions too, so don’t think a scholarly conference is a bunch of people saying, “Oh, I just love Moby Dick so much, don’t you?” Truth is, we have mastered the task of compiling information, organizing an argument, proving a point, utilizing professional sources, and basically making sense of an immense, abstract work like Moby Dick to people who have never read it. I think Herman Melville’s novels are far more complex than your run-of-the-mill T.P.S. reports from Office Space.

And, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, we have gotten used to overworking ourselves. For years if not decades, we’ve been frequenting our local coffee shops and libraries to study, grade, read, or write long into the night.

 

Let’s examine how an English major can be a good asset to a company or organization:

Business: The cornerstone of success (at least ethically) relies on effective communication. I don’t need a business degree to understand that concept. English majors have excellent written communication skills. If we didn’t have that ability, we would have failed out long ago and…just started bartending or waiting tables fulltime a few years earlier. Still, many employers are unhappy with their employees’ writing. Sue Shellenbarger wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace. […] Such looseness with language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communications errors, many managers say.” She also suggested that more and more employers are implementing training programs to improve their workers’ writing skills. If many graduates with “marketable” degrees lack strong communication skills, what use are they to employers?  According to the Washington Post, researchers speculate that the GMAT actually favors negative business attributes, which has led to business schools graduating problematic leaders. In my opinion, it would be easier to train an English major about specifics of a certain company than it would be to train adults to write creatively and critically. It’s like taking college composition all over again. An English major’s learning level is advanced because he or she frequently reads books, God forbid.

Marketing and Sales: I think it’s safe to say that a sales representative or a marketing specialist technically sells products, but they really sell the idea of the product first. Remember the touching moment in Tommy Boy when David Spade tells Chris Farley, “People are really buying you, not just brake pads”? Selling ideas is an English major’s strong suit. Hell, that’s all an English degree is really, and the writing process is very similar to a sales pitch. The author needs to select the best approach to bridge the context between the topic and the audience in order to fulfill his or her purpose. In “salesy” terms, you need to educate the client about the services or products in such a way so that he or she will be confident in making a purchase. It’s selling ideas, not products. English majors read, read, and read to familiarize themselves with literary works while finding data and references. Then, we construct a detailed, written argument that targets specific audiences for a specific purpose: to sell people on ideas. Those ideas typically delve into complex topics like race, gender, politics, and economics. If we can sell those kind of ideas, then I think we can sell frigging brake pads.

Research and Analysis: English majors have both of these in the bag. You can’t write a 20 page essay without thorough research and analysis. Some of my graduate papers had over 30 scholarly sources that read more like a science book than anything literary. In an age when “Google” is just as much an action verb as it is a proper noun, the mainstream search engines aren’t always enough to find credible research. In order to find the right sources, we utilize professional resources like Jstor or Ebsco. It doesn’t end there of course. In order to compose an essay, we must properly implement, format, and cite the sources in a scientific way. The MLA handbook for English professors might as well be the Bible. That attention to detail and strict adherence to a professional standard go a long way in the field. But, what about interpreting data that is confusing and hard to understand? Please. Ever hear of James Joyce or William Faulkner? Go read Finnegan’s Wake or  The Sound and the Fury and talk to me about incomprehensible material.  

Community Engagement and Outreach: This field requires its employees to possess a strong sense of social awareness, cultural backgrounds, and historical contexts. As I said previously, most of what we read encompasses complex topics. If anything, a literature class is practically an open forum about race, gender, economics, and so on. Literature may seem fluffy to some people, but there’s nothing light about Richard Wright. A novel can be a story, a study on social justice, an historical account, and a call to action all in one.  And, I believe several English majors are ready to participate and put that heightened perspective to good use. A lot of us are just stuck behind the service counter or a bar in order to survive.

Anything Creative: A wise gentleman told me recently, “At the end of the day, creative people are the ones that make things happen.” Many of us are creative writers. That may not sound like much, but writers create fictitious worlds and struggle religiously to make them work. You don’t think we can be creative to make things work in this world? Instead of laboring over made-up characters, we can work with actual people? Nearly every job posting I saw required its applicants to have a creative approach to solve problems. Maybe just the simple fact of reading books will generate the creative and intuitive edge that employers are looking for. Last time I checked, people who read books tend to actually know things. And, people (aka clients and customers) actually like to talk to people about these kind of things. On many occasions, bar patrons told me that I was a great bartender simply for my learned conversations about New Orleans writers like Walker Percy and John Kennedy Toole. Their strong drinks may have influenced their opinions too.

Let me be clear. I am not devaluing anyone’s degree that is not English related. Most people choose their degrees in their best interest, whether it is for financial stability or for a lifelong passion.  I’m fully aware that non-English majors learn specific skills and dynamics concerning their own industry. However, I am saying that English majors have more skin in the game than they get credit for. And if employers are looking for candidates with a wide spectrum of skills and experience, perhaps this is an opportunity for employers to “read” our resumes for at least 30 seconds. I get that the pool of applicants is more like a flood of resumes these days, but that is even more reason to take more time to select the right candidate. There’s more chance of selecting the wrong candidate, especially if a computer is making the filtering decisions. Furthermore, the practice of computer screening encourages plagiarism among applicants. If that’s how people are getting interviews then why are we failing students that commit it? Should we then encourage plagiarism? The hell with a zombie apocalypse or an Orwellian dystopia; a future world run by plagiarists is as sorrowful and frightening as it gets.  

Thomas Jefferson once said, “An educated citizenry is vital for our survival as a free people.” He was the “Renaissance man” of his time no doubt, considering he was a writer, statesman, inventor, university founder, diplomat, scientist, and whatever else he dreamed to do. That’s when the “humanities” and the entrepreneurial spirit were the same thing. Given his love for literature and philosophy, Jefferson probably would have chosen English as his major and might have ended up working at Starbuck’s instead of writing a document that changed the world forever.

There is no place for such a Renaissance man in today’s workforce, it seems. America has always been known as the land of opportunity, and it still is in many cases. But, perhaps we need to stop and consider what we mean by “opportunity” as we move into the 21st century. I define the word as having the potential to be happy or having a fulfilling life. I chose English as my major because I enjoyed it and excelled in it. If I followed that principle, I could do good things one day. But, I’m not sure what to tell the younger generations as they embark on their college paths. Should we really start telling kids that they can’t be whatever they want in life? Should we suggest that they settle for a “marketable major” and devalue their hopes and dreams? If that’s the case, then what have we bastardized the “American Dream” into? Jefferson wasn’t talking about “marketable degrees” when he referred to an “educated citizenry.” He meant that we should be able to grasp the world around us so that we can coexist in a just society.

When you meet an English major, the question shouldn’t be, “What are you going to do with that?” Instead, you should ask, “What can’t you do with that?”  If the workforce continues to wane in creativity, communication skills, writing proficiency, and critical thinking abilities in the digital age, an English degree might just end up being the most “marketable” degree after all.   

 

 

Not Just My Imagination: An Ode to Dolores O’Riordan

When it comes to writing, not everything comes easily. No matter how creatively your quirky mind works or quickly your fingertips type, you need a little help from time to time. Generating the initial thoughts seems effortless. Stephen King says in On Writing that “good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at your right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find the ideas but to recognize them when they show up” (25). As true as that statement is, transforming those ideas into a completed draft does require plenty of self-scrutiny and emotional exhaustion. The creative process is like building a fire. Perhaps the “two unrelated ideas” that King mentions are paper and kindling so that they only become fire until a spark ignites both of them? But also like a fire, the writer’s intuition needs to be fed or it will die, and hopefully he or she intends to warm others or to cook something up and not to burn a whole forest down with their words. Many things keep writers writing: coffee, tobacco, coffee, beer, pot, a window view, music, and…yes more coffee please. Everyone’s different, of course. Mark Twain had to stick himself in a corner away from a window and his billiard table in order to get anything done while smoking an ungodly amount of cigars. Or, a godly amount, depending on your preference/tolerance of premium cigars. It’s always a different combination of things, depending on the time of day. Coffee in the morning, beer or rum in the evening, and a cigar in private or public (when permissible).

While all of these things are variable, music is a constant in this equation. Certainly, the genres and artists are interchangeable depending on the mood I wish to inject in the pages. There’s something strange about how particular bands or vocalists evoke a unique artistic fervor within us. No one can exude an angsty splendor better than Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins or a beautiful melancholy better than Ashley Monroe. The recently deceased Cranberries’ front woman, Dolores O’Riordan, always propelled a slightly sorrowful yet persistent and hopeful human spirit. Her voice helped me, as weird as it sounds, get into the heads of the female characters I had created. And, that’s what I needed for writing Mira Roche, a main protagonist in my novel (currently unpublished). I needed a steadfast, strong female character that possessed a focused strength to distract from her tragic surroundings in order to fight for her students’ futures. But it wasn’t just Mira. I have been listening to the Cranberries for writing inspiration as far back as college when I first attempted to write somewhat believable female characters. Whenever I wanted to tap into my female characters’ minds, I could always go back to the Cranberries. The music was always there, and yet, perhaps it always will be, assuming that the internet and digital music technology withstand the wayward world.

dolores oriordan

Photo Credit: Island/Photofest

But Dolores O’Riordan won’t be. It’s almost like she wasn’t ever a person to begin with, just another name or voice in history.  Another coin lost at the bottom of a fountain of hundreds of stories untold and wishes ungranted. It is sad that not only another talented artist met an early end, but also that I did not even know her name until I read that she had died unexpectedly. Nor did I really care to, it seemed. Sometimes worldwide fame isn’t even enough for us to escape anonymity. Not all creative artists covet fame, but I’ll assert that most, if not all, writers fear nothingness. We create for the sake of our own sanity, sure, but the hope that our labor of love will resonate with someone somewhere somehow. Hundred years from now, I’ll be a happy eternal spirit if two people are talking about my writings on a pair of barstools. Writers don’t fear obscurity; we fear being buried alive in the back boneyards of the Salvation Army.  Though the Cranberries’ music is still quite known; what about Dolores O’Riordan? Is that what we as artists want? To be used simply as a vehicle of entertainment or inspiration, and then be overlooked as an individual?

This band reigned in the 90s, between my ages of 8 and 18 which is the time frame when it’s easy to take everything for granted. Well, as an adult and soon-to-be-father, I know better at least to appreciate the grant and its giver. It will remain unclear how she died until a report releases information on April 3rd. Either way, her words boosted the creation of many of other words that she will never read nor even know of.  But, for what it’s worth, thank you, Dolores. It is quite possible that certain dialogue sequences or plot points would not exist in Pro Bono Publico (working title) without your music along the way.

There’s no stretch of the imagination to think that her Irish roots fostered her voice’s angry, aspirational essence, which will always have a place in the world.  Perhaps we need it more than ever. In response to your questioning whether anyone cares in “Ode to My Family”: Yes, thank you, and rest well.