Inspirations and Influences

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.


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.