Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ten Reasons Why You Shouldn't Buy My Bed & Breakfast

Author’s Note: This summer we listed the Auberge de Stowe B&B for sale. We’ve been at this for fourteen years, and it’s time for a new challenge. If you or anyone you hate has a notion to be an innkeeper, read the following post first.

1. It’s old, and it wasn’t built with any of your guest’s needs in mind. There’s been absolutely no thought given to making memories for guests that stay here. No contrived themes for the bedrooms, no conveniences like super-deluxe down comforters, no cable or satellite television. If you’re in a wheelchair, forget it: the entry doors are narrow and angled and come at the top of two cement steps with a door that opens out. And the bathrooms in the guest rooms are like closets. French people have difficulties fitting in them. Come to think of it, if you have a gigantic butt you’re also out of luck. You’ll never squeeze through the odd passageways and tight corners. It’s also shaped funky and people sometimes get lost. The wifi is erratic. Cell service is sketchy. In other words, it’s got tons of character. 

2. You have to get up early and be nice to people. These are two separate actions that should never be grafted together. Getting up early is easy. I do most of my creative writing in the morning. That’s because most people don’t get up as early as I do, so it’s quiet. But when you throw coffee-mad paying guests into the way, you get a feeling that’s a cross between aggravation and desperation. Being nice to the first people to get up isn’t bad, but after you’ve made your “This is the best place to hike/ski/skinny dip” speech three times without the benefit of a bathroom visit, it gets difficult. #bladderbuster #colonquiver

3. Being a small business person sucks. Everybody wants a piece of you. Charities. The tax man. Your neighbors. Being in business is not about you making money. It’s about other people making money off of you. People on the phone are the worst. The phone rings all day, even after you list the number with the Do Not Call list (which is actually an anagram for “call this number repeatedly”). The phone people use spoofing to hide the number their dialing from. They represent the Benevolent Order of Police and Fire Chiefs, Vacation Getaways Condos, the American Masturbation Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Tea Party Wingnuts, Save the Whales, Save the Bales, Save the Kale, Greenpeace, Timepiece, Peace on Earth, Earth First, First Nations Scholarship Fund, Clean Up the Bay of Fundy, and my personal favorite, the Shelter for Homeless Hookers. Really. And they all want your money. So you will evolve fun and creative ways of dealing with them, like answering your phone with Mumbai accent and saying, “Hello, my name is Robert, may I speak to your manager or the person in charge of financial decisions?” Which is why being a small business person is so much fun.

4. Toilets. These are the things people pee and poop into, and they’re your responsibility. 

5. The road. It brings up people with money (or at least adequate credit scores), but it also brings traffic, noise, and schmucks. Traffic clogs the roads, jamming the intersections. Traffic causes endless fender-benders. Traffic confuses people from Massachusetts and New Jersey at the three-way stop in the village. People from Connecticut and New York seems to have figured this intersection out, but people from Massachusetts and New Jersey are flummoxed by it, and their solution is to drive through the intersection without stopping while yelling, “You should see this stupid  intersection!” into their cell phones. 

The road brings noise. Huge tractor-trailers shudder when they hit the potholes that pock the road like zits on a teenager’s face. Dump trucks scream through the village and engage their engine brakes, sonically assaulting buildings, cyclists, and pedestrians. Emergency vehicles race up and down the road, sirens wailing. Dogs bark. Crazy women scream. Times Square is quieter. 

The road brings schmucks. These are the people who think you owe them something because they haven’t maxed out their credit cards yet. These are the people who throw cigarette butts, diapers, and 16-ounce cans of Bud Light out the window. They also bring up their foul urban and suburban habits with them, like iPads and drugs. I’m going to start standing at the town line with my Schmuck Meter. Every time it goes off, a schmuck will get stopped and turned around. We don’t need the money that bad. 

6. Maintenance. See “1. It’s old.” Luckily for prospective buyers, I’ve done just about everything that can be done to this place: new heating systems, new roofs, new decks, new bathrooms, door hinges, GFCI outlets, vacuuming. The problem is that the cycle is coming around again, and I don’t want to be without a chair when the music stops. That’s for the next guy. Let him deal with the next round of updates. My plumbing skills are as good as they’re going to get. 

7. Needs vs. Wants. Everybody that stays with you wants something, but needs nothing. Staying at a B&B in Northern Vermont is superfluous. Think of what guests could be doing with their time and money instead of engaging me about how good the coffee is. They could be volunteering to better their own community. They could be reading the classics to folks in hospice. They could be dumping buckets of ice water over their heads. These are the people you will have to deal with daily, but you’ll get to deal with them on your own terms, not your boss’s.

8. A skewed notion of time. Owning an inn means you are busy in the morning, busy in the evening, and busier in the middle of the day, when you’re doing things like fielding phone calls from the Shelter for Homeless Hookers and paying legitimate bills. Also, you can’t properly drink. Check-ins roll in from 4PM to 10PM, prime drinking hours. Many times, I don’t get to have a drink until after 10PM. This seriously impedes your ability to become an alcoholic. And if you’re a pothead, that’s even worse. Since your 420 friends aren’t the primary target demographic, the first whiff of Mary Jane will send lodgers scurrying for the conservative horizon. By the time you’ve checked in the last guest, the only thing you want to do is go to bed–so that you can get up early and be nice to people. 

9. Vacations. Fuggedaboutit. For the first five years, you won’t have enough money. You’ll be exhausted, and traveling will be the last thing on your wish list. If you do decide to travel, you can only go on vacation in November and April, when the rest of the world is traveling, so you’ll pay top dollar if you make it out of Dodge. You’ll return from you vacation pissed and poor. And the guests will be waiting with their demands for more bandwidth and toilet paper. 

10. Friends. You won’t have any who you don’t already have, or who aren’t innkeepers. And the friends you have now will soon be sloughed away as they fail to comprehend why you would want to be an innkeeper when you could instead be an uptight jackass and earn scads of money and have tons of stuff and take vacations at small B&Bs in Northern Vermont. You’ll be left with a bitter collection of innkeepers who congregate weekly to drown the memories of their harrowing weeks with the beer their guests left behind. And they will be among the finest and best friends you will ever have. 

11. Social media. The scourge of modern mankind. Most of you reading this blog will have come from Facebook, and that irony is not lost on me. If not for social media, I’d be writing travel sidebars for women’s magazines (“How To Pee on the Interstate When There Are No Rest Areas”). So I embrace it at arm’s length. 

12. Your guests. Your guests will madden and delight you. They will intrigue and bore you. They will piss you off, and they will become your friends. They will come back and you will forget their names. They will all blend together and they will stand out in your mind. They will leave you tips and they will leave dirty diapers and condoms and bloody sheets behind. You will become a human expert. Some of them will become like brothers and sisters, and some of them you will escort out by the scruffs of their necks. 

If all that appeals to you, give my realtor a call. We’ll set up a visit, I’ll relieve you of your life’s savings, and you can get on with the business of innkeeping, the noblest venture you’ll ever undertake. 

P.S. I know that’s twelve reasons, but I couldn’t stop, and “10 Reasons” sounds better than “12 Reasons.” 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Confessions of a Clive Cussler Fan

In my previous blog post, I talked about the difference between writing in different genres–specifically, writing "literature" versus writing a thriller. At the end of the blog, I rapped about my affection for Clive Cussler, who has written over fifty books, most of them adventure/thrillers that are set on the ocean, and contain a historical element. Cussler is the kind of writer that makes academic reach for the Rolaids, but I'm here to defend Cussler, not to bury him.

Cussler came to writing the old-fashioned way: he had another career, and began writing for pleasure in his 30s. In this age of advanced degrees and experts without practical experience, it's hard to imagine the organic approach to writing, but like his other best-selling contemporaries John Grisham and Tom Clancy, Cussler's craft emerged from within.

The knock against Cussler's writing is a legitimate one: the writing is fantastical or hackneyed, the plots rely on deus ex machina, the characters are stereotypical and sexist, and the dialogue is wooden. All true.

But the feeling after reading a Cussler novel is one of exhilaration. You feel like you've been somewhere, met someone, and done something. There's no confusion after a Cussler novel. Cigars are smoked, sunsets are observed, evil is vanquished. No reader walks away from a Cussler novel intellectually hobbled.

That said, while I was reading Cussler's latest novel, Ghost Ship, I came across a passage that made even the most devoted Cussler fan wince:

Five foot ten, with hair the color of red wine, and smooth pale skin, Gamay was an athlete and in fantastic shape. She had a sharp wit that was usually used in jest, though you didn't want to be on her bad side, as she didn't suffer fools lightly. (158)

I have to admit, it was hard for my fingers to find the sequence of keys on my keyboard that created those words in that order. That's one of the worst passages of writing I've ever read, and I teach composition at the university level. Let's pick it apart.

"Hair the color of red wine." Um, no. First of all, there are dozens of different shades of red wine, from pinot noir to burgundy. Second, it's not a color that occurs on the human head naturally, so our friend Gamay is a bottle-babe. And that name: Gamay. Who would name someone after a grape used to produce beaujolais wine? Oh, right. It's 2014. It's probably trending on Twitter.

Next we come to "an athlete and in fantastic shape." This is an example of being specifically general, not to mention redundant. Outside of sumo wrestlers and NFL lineman, athletes are in good shape. But wait, he said "fantastic shape." So she's a fantasy, or remote from reality. Hello, sexism.

Next we hear about her "sharp wit that was usually used in jest." Too bad she didn't just open her mouth and show us that sharp wit. Maybe it's so sharp there's a risk of injury. Actually, Gamay speaks in the next paragraph. Here's what she says: "I see we're almost ready." I admit, it's kind of hard to see the sharpness, the wit, or the jest in that statement. Further study may be required.

Finally the paragraph wraps up with this gem: "(T)hough you didn't want to be on her bad side, as she didn't suffer fools lightly." This is a straightforward mixed metaphor, and there's nothing wrong with that, except it should say something. First of all, why break into the second person "you." Oh, I see: it's being used as an indefinite pronoun. That's an amateur flaw because it breaks the tension of the story. The suffering fools reference is just lazy writing, cliche and meaningless without seeing Gamay in opposition to a fool.

In all fairness to Cussler, this passage may have been penned by his co-author, Graham Brown. Brown has co-authored three other books with Cussler, and is the author of several of his own works. I haven't read anything by Brown before, so I can't say for sure this was one of his tropes. But in a genre known for rushing by facts and details, this one honked like foghorn.

Writing like this in no way diminishes the enjoyment of reading great yarns by a fascinating writing like Cussler. His imagination is unparalleled, and the level of research behind his writing is obvious. He's a marine expert who holds a Ph.D. from SUNY Maritime College for his nonfiction book The Sea Hunters. It's also the kind of writing that many people want to read, and while I'd never advocate writing in a certain style because someone else has had success there, the plotting and pacing of this style is enjoyable to read, and it's fun to write (see my previous blog post).

So treat yourself to some Clive Cussler before the summer's over. You'll giggle at some of the writing, but after you're done, you'll be hooked, too.

Works Cited

Cussler, Clive. Ghost Ship. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2014. Print.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

“The Difference Between Writing Name the Boy and Writing Red Snow”

“The Difference Between Writing Name the Boy and Writing Red Snow”

In his essay “Narcissus Regards His Book/The Common Reader Now,” Mark Edmundson argues that readers “read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained...diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled” (173). Edmundson, a cheeky academic known for his extended, bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you satirical essays, has leveled his sights at the consumer in this piece. And he’s right. Most modern readers want to read for the joy of it, the escape reading offers, not the challenge of actually learning something, of being changed by the words written by a stranger in another time and place. 

That’s inarguable. The real question is, “Why shouldn’t they?”

Edmundson’s writing throughout Why Teach? In Defense of Real Education (the book is a collection of essays, including “Narcissus Regards His Book/The Common Reader”) returns to the theme of the abandoned pursuit of intellectual reading again and again. Edmundson casts himself as a sort of upbeat Chris Hedges, portraying modern people as extras in The Matrix: they’d rather plug in, log on, and check out than probe the deeper reaches of literature. He’s not wrong.

I’ve experienced the phenomenon of readers wishing for pleasurable reading first hand through two of the book-length works I’ve written. The first, a short story collection called Name the Boy, was not the kind of book modern readers seem to want to read–at least not for pleasure. Filled with painful renditions of poverty, alcoholism, and parental neglect and abuse, it’s the kind of writing that makes superficial readers want to take a shower after plowing through it. Turns out they’d rather conserve water. And that was the point of the collection. I wanted to turn a light onto the predatory character that emerges among people fighting for survival on the edge of poverty. It was writing meant to provoke reflection, and writing those stories was a gut-wrenching experience. 

I wrote Name the Boy as my creative thesis while in graduate school. I read several of the stories to my classmates and faculty during the late-night student readings, where they were enthusiastically received. Most writers who have read my stories continue to tell me that they’re good, worthwhile. Fellow instructors at the college where I teach have taught my stories in their classes. But I wanted more from my writing; I didn’t want to toil in obscurity. I wanted to write stories for a wider audience. One night, while discussing this with my friend, the writer Chris Millis (and by “discussing” I mean “drinking excessively and hatching ridiculous schemes”), he suggested I try something different. 

“Why not write a pot-boiler?” he said. “You know, one of those books you see on the racks at airports. Some kind of adventure/thriller. Get it out of your system.” 

That second, book-length work of fiction became the novel Red Snow. It was indeed conceived as a thriller. When writing it, I had only two guiding principles: first, make sure there’s plenty of white space; second, write as badly as you wish. Writing the book has been (Professor Edmundson, please cover your ears!) fun. Fun is the word the intellectual abhors. It’s the word my parish priest scolds the flock with. It’s the thing that, as a parent, I caution against. And yet here I am, doing it. For fun. Because it feels good. 

It’s a story about an writer/innkeeper and his Basque wife who happens to be a retired French spy, only spies are never really “retired,” and her past reaches out and drags them into a global cabal that threatens to end the United States as we know it. It’s got great structure, fully plotted out before I wrote a single word. It’s slavishly devoted to the three-act structure, and in fact, I actually wrote it as a screenplay before I wrote it as a novel. That allowed me to plug into the writing whenever I had an hour or two. Given my teaching and innkeeping responsibilities, that was priceless. 

For me, as a writer, the difference between writing these two books was, as Mark Twain said, the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. While writing the stories for Name the Boy, I would often be immersed in a section of the text where I knew something was going to happen, but I didn’t know what. I would struggle with the story, trying to divine what Ernest Hemingway called “the actual things...which produced the emotion you experienced” (Hemingway). In other words, the one true thing. The effort nearly killed me, and for all the conversation it generated, I’m not sure it was worth it. What it got me was a cool distance from everyone who read it who wasn’t a writer. In other words, the superficial readers Edmundson laments, in and out of academia. 

Writing Red Snow was more of a pure experience. By pure, I mean indulgent, of course. It evoked the very feelings I–as a moral character–am supposed to shun. Feelings of exhilaration. Feelings of excitement. Feelings of infatuation, like the feeling at the beginning of a new relationship, when you can’t think of anything but the other person, the way she feels, the way she smells, the very thought of being next to her–that’s the way I felt writing Red Snow. Imagine that feeling, every day, for over a year, and you begin to get it.

Edmundson loses his cool when it comes to contemporary popular fiction. He pits academic culture against modern entertainment culture, and we know who wins. But this is nothing new. Humans have been choosing the low road forever. It’s what makes us human. The struggle to strive for the worthy describes the purpose of all religions, and it’s a struggle that plays out in every aspect of human life. Why should reading and writing be any different?

“If it makes you feel good, it must be,” Edmundson writes, his words quavering with sarcasm. “If Stephen King and John Grisham bring pleasure, why, then let us applaud them” (176). Tone aside, he makes a valid point when he focuses on the important question: What makes a book worth writing or worth reading? The problem with that question is that it takes the position that a book not worthy of this lofty goal should not be written.

Really? That sounds reversely Biblical to me, as in, “The Bible’s perfect, so why bother writing anything else?” So all the crap that was written before, during, and after Gilgamesh should not have been? Did Shakespeare simply channel his works, or did he read widely, honing his style as much by what disgusted him as what inspired him? Melville (whose works, by the way, were treated with as much contempt while he was alive as some treat authors like King and Grisham today) slogged through as much post-Colonial American codswallop on the way to Billy Budd and Moby-Dick as he did Hawthorne’s works. 

Pity that he didn’t share with us what literature is actually worth reading today. What contemporary artists are producing relevant works that should be studied and argued over? And I don’t buy the bunk arguing and all the good stuff in life happened in the past–the “Good old days” argument. That’s another mythology we can do without. What about Cormac McCarthy? Haruki Murakami? Joyce Carol Oates? And, though it pains me to say it, Philip Roth? Among their works can’t there be found astounding literature to balance the abhorrence of The Shining and A Time to Kill

I guess I know more about myself as a writer now that I’ve written two radically different works. I enjoy talking about the different processes for each one, the skills needed. I hope it makes me not only a better writer, but a better teacher. But would I have learned that about myself if I had only pursued lofty, academic goals, if I had spent a lifetime banging my muse’s head against the bulwark of canonical immortality? For me, the rich experience gained by writing both Name the Boy and Red Snow has a value far beyond anything that can be bestowed from without. 

With all that in mind, here’s a tribute to an author I read for pleasure. Sing it to the tune “Baby’s Got Back.”

I like Clive Cussler and I cannot lie
Those other writers make me sigh
When a book shows up and it’s three inches thick
That shallow writing makes me tick!
You get hooked, with a plot that shook
A story that makes you wanna look
All day! Forget about James
Joyce or Ernest Hemingway 
Cause they ain’t got that Cussler magic
Deep seas so tragic
And characters that make me roll my eyes!
So academics? Hit the road
Clive’s the dude that steals the show!

Works Cited

Edmundson, Mark. Why Teach? In Defense of Real Education. New York:        Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. “Hemingway is Winner of Nobel Literature Prize.” New  York Times. Accessed October 30, 2011. Web.