Monday, November 28, 2011

The Elements of Story

Years ago, in my English classes, we learned that Story = Protagonist + Antagonist resulting in Conflict.

Conflict creates rising Tension ultimately resulting in Climax and (hopefully) Resolution. With resolution comes Denouement or gradual reduction in tension.

These are all arbitrary guidelines for the beginning writer at best and in my writing, they’ve been thrown out the door a number of times.

But as Kristen Lamb says in her blog today, “Antagonists – the Alpha and the Omega of Story,” the antagonist of a novel has to be well thought out in order to create and maintain the kind of tension for a really good story—not just the proverbial “whodunit,” either. She maintains the writer should spend plenty of time in her initial structuring of the book on that particular element of story with a definitive profile and the full development of the character. It makes sense and since I don’t have the experience behind me that she does, I have to say, okay, Kristen, I’ll give it a try. But what happens when your novel takes a side trip from your planned itinerary and you have to go back, pick up and try again? I was not able to control that.

In my novel, “When the Eagle Flies with the Condor,” the antagonist is not a person, but a situation arising out of emotions such as feelings of abandonment, estrangement and love; similarly, a powerful antagonist can be a storm, a flood, the summit of a major mountain, a family disgrace, a mental disability -- war. In my book, the antagonist is unrequited love. Sound corny? Not when the love is between brother and sister. Their love is more representative of “agape” (from the Greek) than romantic, but the point is, it wasn’t planned that way. It happened and I wanted to be as honest as I knew how to be, thus allowing the antagonist to become whatever it needed to become.

I do agree that having a good idea of what your story is going to say and knowing how it will end is one way to write a novel. But I also agree (with one of the commentators on the blog) that allowing the mind to soar uncontrolled into unexpected regions can be very satisfying and productive and end up perhaps being more. . . well. . . maybe. . . less -- formulaic?  It's my understanding this is called the "panser" method rather than the "plotter" method.  You get the idea. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Remembering JFK

Each year during the past forty eight, there has been less and less said about JFK's assassination. It appalls me, but I understand that most of us living today weren't even born in 1963.

I was kind of in love with Kennedy though I was still too young to have voted for him. His legacy today, however, is laced with a kind of blandness as though aside from his youth, his wit and charisma, his attractive young family, he really accomplished very little. This is blatantly wrong.

Kennedy's legacy grows with each passing year even though the tributes wane, (Chris Matthews’ new book, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero” notwithstanding which documents true heroism during WWII in the Pacific Theatre). True, he allowed Khrushchev to get the upper hand (at first). Also true, that the Berlin Wall went up during his tenure. Indeed, he resided over the Bay of Pigs fiasco and we're all aware of his "indiscretions." But I believe today, that had that young president lived, he might have been one of our greatest leaders. Remember, he had only a thousand days in which to accomplish his agenda.

The thing I remember about the Kennedy administration was the sense of idealism and public service it inspired in us, more than I have seen since, even though President Obama came close in 2008. We wanted to serve back then; patriotism was not just a word being thrown back in our faces when we disagreed with government policies, it was a conviction. We believed passionately and reacted fervently.

As for his accomplishments, take note: the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress, Civil Rights legislation, the Space Program and the introduction of the Green Berets. His major accomplishment, however, was a tight and tense little psychological drama between the USA and the USSR known as The Cuban Missile Crisis, which, without the successful maneuvering of the Kennedys, might have left the world in a state of nuclear disaster.

I guess his potential greatness will never be known which is what happens when someone takes you out before your time. But I think when all is said and done, his star will ultimately shine as one of the brightest. And though there seem to be few tributes today, JFK, this forty-eighth anniversary of your assassination, I remember. And I am grateful to have learned my political abc's under your leadership. You never blamed others for your mistakes -- you took your lumps with calm and grace. How refreshing it would be if our leaders today would learn to do the same

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tidal Raves

“Confluential” is an intriguing word and defined in the first book of Gary Smith’s Trilogy, “Subjected.”

Briefly, as explained by his character in the book, it expresses the coming together of various elements, energies and ideas (as in the confluence of rivers) which subsequently influence our thinking and motivations.

The word is apt in my own experience and I can easily apply it (at least spiritually) to my own personal belief system, ground out through the years from Christian dogma (both Catholic and Protestant), Buddhist study, new-age awareness (the law of attraction), Vision Quests,  Quantum Theory, Yoga and Ayurveda.

Have you ever felt the rush of emotion that comes when you visit an historic site for the first time and you feel all goose pimply with awareness? That this is not a new experience, but . . . memory? That you are filled with the sense of history there, the feel of another time, another life, another self? To me this is only one indication that we’ve lived more than this life and that we’ve actually been to this place before. Or, that we have a spiritual connection to the people who once inhabited such a place -- before. I really doubt there are very many of us who haven’t experienced that feeling at one time or another. Those who deny it have probably experienced it but simply ignored it because they are not open to an “irrational” experience.

Since it’s happened to me many times, I tend to believe that feeling of awareness has meaning. I’m not sure this “awareness” is the same as faith; faith is an amorphous term. Faith in what? In an all-knowing, Christian God, faith in oneself, faith in the inherent goodness of humanity, faith that we are here for a purpose? Or faith that we are all connected and on a space-time continuum that allows us to experience past present and future all at once—and because of our "awareness," are much more than a glob of particles that swirled around our universe eons after the big bang in a way scientists are still trying to comprehend.

My faith is pretty simple: that we are eternal beings and that we are all part of the same ONE which is God, thus becoming God or god-like in our own manifestations. We are like (individual) drops in the sea of a vast unknown cosmos made up of multiple universes and multiple selves. Alternate selves populate alternate universes. And we are now living multiple existences with multiple ideas and multiple outcomes resulting from multiple decisions.

Which brings me back to this idea of the “confluential.”

Our lives are filled with the unknown and the unknown can be difficult and frightening. Being thrown about at life’s confluence of all these choices makes us uncertain about the direction the turbulence will carry us. But this is our opportunity – exposure to new places and new ideas makes us stronger and gradually begins to reach inside and expand our awareness. We begin to wonder if those eerie moments of recognition or familiarity-- are real. We grow; we learn; we expand. That is where I am in this moment of my infinity. I’ve always been here, but was not always “aware” of being here. And I will continue to be here, hanging on to whatever will keep me from going down the drain of arrogance and certitude, watching the tide recede after a tsunami. Yes, it’s scary; it’s an adventure to be sure, but it’s an adventure for the adventurous that I’m not eager to let go of.   I call it life.

This blog originally appeared @  and has been slightly revised since then. sm

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Keystone XL Pipeline

Yesterday, the imminent decision to allow the TransCanada pipeline to run through the center of the US was delayed. President Obama would have had one difficult call and someone will still have to make it sometime in the not so distant future. Whether the decision will fall to him or to his successor, does not matter:  the issues will remain the same in 2013 as they are today.

The decision was and still is  whether to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline through the center of the US from Alberta to the Texas Gulf, providing jobs to thousands of Americans in building the pipe line and hundreds of thousands to maintain and operate the pipeline through 2035. (per TransCanada). The alternative, then, is to cancel it, thus mollifying the concerns of environmentalists and all of their concerns. There are so many levels to this issue,  it is my belief that no matter what the president decides, it will be the wrong decision for 50% of our citizens.

These are some of the issues and concerns:

Issue one, the environment: an article by Seth Borenstein from The Associated Press, states that greenhouse gas levels have risen drastically since 2009 and far exceed the dire prediction of experts from just four years ago – the reason? The world dumped something like 500 million more tons of carbon into our atmosphere in 2010 than the year before. What will the statistics be for 2011?  Greenhouse gases are the unfortunate result of "fracking," the process proposed by TransCanada to extract oil. (Discussion below).

Issue two, job creation and future industry deals with Canada: most labor unions and local politicians support the pipeline with the exception of Nebraska. Today the US is the major source of energy exports from Canada. What will an annulment of the project do to our relations?  The Canadian oil industry believes if this deal does not go through, that it will be the end of export to the US and they will have to expand their markets to Asia, primarily China and India by building a pipeline through Canada west to the Pacific.

Issue three, water, specifically the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska: a portion of the pipeline would pass through the Sandhills region in Nebraska and the Ogallala aquifer which is said to supply water to Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. At the moment, Nebraska stands alone in an attempt to take the decision making process out of the hands of the State Department and into their own.

Issue four, unexplained increased seismic activity: the earthquake that occurred over last weekend in Oklahoma was the strongest in the state’s history. Some believe that the increased seismic activity is a result of the drilling of injection wells. Natural gas companies use a process called “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) to break apart the sand and shale from rock in order to release the natural gas. The water used is then disposed of by injecting it into the ground through “injection wells.” Arkansas is said to have experienced more seismic activity in recent history because of injection wells.  Where, exactly, did the earthquake occur? The pipeline is scheduled to cross near Cushing, OK.

Additionally the "fracking" process requires intense heat that is said to create more greenhouse gases than conventional pumping of crude.

Issue five, the Law of Eminent Domain: which means the government can appropriate your property whether you want to sell or not. They will pay you, of course, but “fair value” is a dubious term.

Issue six, the State Department vs. the State of Nebraska and jurisdiction: Currently the State Department holds jurisdiction over the decision making process since the pipeline would cross a US border; however, there has been a bill presented to the Nebraska State Senate by State Senator Anne Dubas which proposes that responsibility for the decision should rest in the hands of Nebraskans. We will see.

Issue seven, giving a foreign country eminent domain through our lands: Eminent domain is seen by some as a subsidy through private lands that most oil and gas companies must negotiate on an individual basis – to obtain easement rights. This broad access to our lands by a foreign company, they claim, is an infringement on our rights and an argument that amazingly has brought “tea party supporters” and environmentalists together with the same outrage. Per the Washington Post, “. . .TransCanada filed with the Texas Railroad Commission as a “common carrier” – meaning the project is for public use which gives TransCanada eminent domain rights. . .” (Rachel Weiner, Friday, November 11, 9am)

Issue eight, energy sources: The project could significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil (unless of course, you consider Canada to be a foreign country) and if the pipeline is scrubbed, it could mean that in the future Canada will ultimately have to turn to Asian (Chinese) markets to sell their oil because they believe that if the US decides against this pipeline, further exports to the US will be few and far between (See comment above regarding Canada's alternate plan to access Asian markets by building a pipeline through Canada to the Pacific.)

Issue nine, changing the route of the pipeline: could add hundreds of miles to the pipeline to avoid the aquifer in Nebraska and hence delay the construction for perhaps three years.

Note 1: The Keystone XL pipeline would double the capacity of TransCanada’s oil operation because of their existing line already in operation. On November 9, this Keystone pipeline suffered a power failure and had to be shut down for inspection for a period of 15 hours. The pipeline runs from Hardesty, Alberta to Illinois (2100 miles in length) with a second leg routed to Cushing OK. This, even without the additional 1661 mile proposed extension, seems to be a disaster waiting to happen.

Note 2: Another earthquake occurred in Oklahoma  just yesterday in the same region as the 5.6 quake last week.

With the increased seismic activity in the states that will host the pipeline in a shallow easement, there seems to me to be sufficient warning, that perhaps we need to reconsider the proposed route. The  jobs are important -- no one denies that; but do we want another disaster such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf, whose ecological ramifications are still unknown to this date?

I do not have the answers; but I know the answers are out there.  Let us deliberate; let us consider.  I believe the president has made the right decision in postponing a major commitment that could lead to environmental disaster and yet I believe the jobs creation is an imperative. I've been talking about a WPA project akin to FDR's in the 30's for years now.  Why is this such an outlandish idea?  With a national agenda such as this, we could put people to work building and producing, and not add to the environmental hazards; a project that would be CON-structive rather than DE-structive.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

E. L. Doctorow and the Postmodern Era

Here is a sample of my essay on Doctorow in my soon to be released collection entitled The Moving Finger Writes: 

The Stylistic Freedom of E. L. Doctorow
The postmodern agenda has been described as a revolt against the Moderns, a departure from order, Enlightenment, reason, unity and system, while it embraces fragmentation, depthlessness, indeterminacy and chaos, to name only a few of its most frustrating characteristics. The postmodern world in general favors a creation-centered, spirituality over the "God is Dead" alienation of the Moderns and the anthropic principle over the accidental universe. In aesthetics, the search by the Moderns for meaning and transcendence from alienation has been discarded like yesterdays newspapers to be recycled into a "New Age" cosmic consciousness, whose superficiality discourages the need for interpretation. Much of the writing (Marquez, Borges and Pynchon, notwithstanding) is self-indulgent and cathartic, exemplified by the poetry of Adrienne Rich, or deliberately vague and flaccid as in much of John Ashbery, or it rests haphazardly within the category of the absurd; it becomes carnavalesque, anti-form and diegetic as in Robert Coover's work. There is a very superficial tip of the hat, if indeed there is any acknowledgment at all, to serious issues, with which the Moderns at least attempted to grapple.

E. L. Doctorow is one of the few writers today who is eager to embrace the larger political and social issues of our time, believing it to be not only the writer's responsibility, but "the passion of our calling…the belief that writing matters, that there is salvation in witness and moral assignment" (qtd in Harter 12). However, in portraying the social issues of the past and present, Doctorow combines an impelling synthesis of authorial devices; he is neither a realist in the modernist tradition, nor depthless and ludic' in the postmodern sense, yet his work embraces many of the techniques of both worlds, resulting in an historical view which he has described as slightly off center. "Somehow I was the kind of writer who had to put myself though prisms to find the right light--I had to filter myself from my imagination in order to write" (Trenner 34). It is this distorted view of history, the juxtaposition of imaginary historical characters with real ones, all of whom are implanted into altered historical situations, which is the focus of much poststructuralist criticism today and indeed occupies several paragraphs in Fredric Jameson's often quoted essay, "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism." While discussing Doctorow's novel, Ragtime, Jameson states, "This historical novel can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only 'represent' our ideas and stereotypes about the past (which thereby at once becomes 'pop history')" (69). "Re¬presentation" is a major tenet of postmodernism and a valued tool in Doctorow; it is "simulacrum," the exact copy for which there is no original.

That Jameson admires Doctorow is clear, once referring to him as, "…one of the few serious and innovative Left novelist's at work in the United States today…" (68), a sentiment which is echoed by others perhaps less knowledgeable than Jameson, who read into Doctorow's work a political message that is both simplistic and reductive. Still others are outraged by Doctorow's manipulation of historical facts, regarding them as mis-representations rather than representations. Nevertheless, in most of the criticism reviewed, it is the content of Doctorow's social comment that fires the debate today rather than his treatment of it. The focus of this essay will be Doctorow's techniques, many of which I believe fall well within the postmodern paradigm: the revision of history, which is evident in all his works, the almost cinematic structure of his prose as seen in The Book of Daniel, his early and perhaps greatest novel, and his voice--the symbiosis of author and character--evident not only in The Book of Daniel, but more recently in the novella and collection of six short stories, Lives of the Poets.

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

When the Eagle Flies with the Condor: a novel of the sixties

A Review of my Book;  See below:

An Unforgettable Novel with Deep Thematic Elements

- October 7 2011-

There is a two thousand-year-old prophecy that says that when the eagle flies with the condor, there will be peace and brotherhood among the nations. When the Eagle Flies with the Condor: A Novel of the Sixties, by Sue McGhee, is a riveting tale based on this prophecy, set against the backdrop of the 1960s and spanning both North and South America.

Two American children growing up in Bolivia while their father builds roads in an attempt to bring commerce to its natives must return to the United States for reasons that they do not know or understand at the time, and have deep psychological reactions to being uprooted. Nicky joins the Army and is deployed to Vietnam and Bernie returns to South America to minister to the needs of the natives, who she recognizes as filled with knowledge, latent power, and untapped potential for good. As the turbulence of the 1960s claims blood sacrifices and brings political turmoil, Bernie hopes that the prophecy of the eagle flying with the condor will be fulfilled in her lifetime.

The story is rich in meaning and themes, taking it out of the realm of the ordinary—catapulting it into the sphere of the extraordinary and the truly literary, appealing to readers of all genres with its unique blend of plot elements and thematic elements. When the Eagle Flies with the Condor synthesizes a gripping story with compelling characters, interwoven with themes of brotherhood, social issues, and the struggle for meaning. Whether you lived through the 1960s or simply love a great story, McGhee’s heartrending novel is an absolutely unforgettable must-read.

McGhee’s prowess for storytelling is undeniable and readers are certain to fall in love with her gift, and will be anxiously awaiting her next release.


Archer Anderson
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