Help—AI Algorithms Stole My Keyboard!

I have seen the future of writing. And it might not include me, but I can always clean up stray punctuation.

We all know automation is threaded through today’s workforce, from Amazon robots picking your favorite paper towels off shelves in a galaxy far, far away, to artificial intelligence (AI) reading your x-rays with a precision that many radiologists can’t approach.

But we writers thought that soulless machines, bland blocks of code, couldn’t invade the field of creatives. Our work takes a unique combination of insight and awareness, experiment and structure, flash and incubation not afforded to the canned collection of inputs that machine learning extracted from countless texts. Doesn’t it?

Not so fast, me hearties. You may have heard of GPT-3, a language-prediction AI that has devoured mountains of text, fiction and non, so that when fed some kind of text anew, it can draw upon its wide database of how particulars of expression are built, and spit out some new material relevant to the initial input.

This is substantively more clever—and repeatable—than those legendary monkeys finally typing a Shakespeare play after eons of gibberish. But surely the unseen hand here is just dry bones wielding a dull brush, not a vibrant painter of imagery and language? Not exactly. Not Margaret Atwood yet, but if Margaret were a four-year-old today, she might get into weaving as a backup profession.

I had a chance to try a beta of Sudowrite, a creative writing tool based on GPT-3. And the results were intriguing, if not unsettling.

I wrote a couple of goofy paragraphs for Sudo AI to get cooking:

The ogre was moody today. Every one of his horns felt itchy. His mother hadn’t called him in two weeks. His oldest child lit a village on fire yesterday, trying to cook some marshmallows.
But the worst was his painting! All his ideas, bright in the mind, came out derivative and dull. He needed a change.

 
I asked the Wormhole function (which then gives you five paragraphs of distinctly different elaborations on your prompt, trying to harmonize tone, characters and voice) of the software to provide me with some more story strides; I chose one of the five:

Ogre turned to his advisor and asked, “What do you see in my painting?”
The advisor paused in the middle of feeding himself from the tub of acid.
“I see…darkness,” he said, eyes flashing deep within his skull. “I see a tribe of cowards making a garden in a forest. A tribe of cowards—no, it’s actually a tribe of cows. But belligerent cows, with nasty attitudes. I think they are protesting the price of Netflix subscriptions for bovines.

 
I accepted the AI’s first three Wormhole sentences, but then meddled: Sudo gave me a tribe of cowards, but I decided that wasn’t as fanciful as a tribe of belligerent cows, which I edited in. Then I put forth:

The ogre pondered. “Yes, but what does that have to do with me?”

 
My advisor, abandoning caution through the Wormhole, let loose:

The advisor stood on a stool, letting the acid eat from his ripped robe and slippers down to the bone. “You are the darkness in their garden, the anger behind the bovine protest. You are the beast at the doorstep, the teacher that will teach us all lessons. But above all—you are the ooze that will devour this section of the canvas, because no one has made anything creative in ages, and the old ideas stink.”

 
Always good to ponder the words of someone on acid, or someone with acid on them. I agreed and offered my advisor a 10% raise in the story.

The program then suggested that the ogre should fight his oldest child. Here’s part of that:

“Is that wise?” the advisor gagged. “He’s got horns like a gazelle. A merciless killer.”
“If you want me to paint anything worthwhile, I’ll have to win this battle,” the ogre stated.
“Don’t forget my raise.”

 
I should have advised that ogre to never make personnel promises you can’t keep, but too late on the raise.

What if you get bogged down at some plot point? Sudo AI dodges bogs by giving you the Twist function, which supplies you with a number of varying paths. Here are some small excerpts of some twists (the full excerpts are too long for the post):

• The ogre discovers that he’s not an ogre at all; he’s a Tcho-Tcho, a race of dwarves who’ve been living underground the whole time.
• The advisor is the brother, who thinks he is the ogre.
• The king’s brother is really the king’s long-lost son; the advisor is really a demon sent by his father to con the king out of his fortune [Sudo seems to have decided the ogre is a king]

Or left wanting for some piquant spicing, you could choose a word and use the Describe function to elaborate on the selected term. I chose “advisor” here:

• Advisor is a tall man with a tousled beard and approachable smile. His eyes look like a dragon’s—he’s pasty white and jaundiced.
• His breath even carries the smell of old parchment, the stale odor of a library that’s been locked up for decades.

or, with gusto (and a pileus):

• He was a little old man covered in ash and soot, with a wrinkled, crinkled face and skin as taut as a drum. He had a beard of celery, callused hands, and a pileus made of vegetable leaves. He wore plaid clothing from the chest up and straw sandals from the waist down.

If you read the Joanna Penn Sudowrite article linked above, you can see the AI software offers other intriguing story-building functions. That article also looks at some of the broader ramifications and applications of such software. Since the company’s founder is the interviewee, he is judicious with disclaimers about such software “replacing” writers or it being used to flood markets—or at least Amazon—with haphazardly written self-published novels and stories.

I’m agnostic about those matters for now, but in seeing how the program rapidly produced variant story developments and characters in my frothy tale, I sensed both danger and delight. I see how a stuck writer could become unglued by seeing provocative hints on pushing a story forward, or become beguiled by a character trait or behavior they wouldn’t have considered otherwise. And use the suggestions, with modifications. Or none?

Many of the suggestions from software functions were clumsily worded or simply “off,” but many did give me pause to think, “Now that’s a [phrase, character, development, etc.] I wouldn’t have come up with,” or wouldn’t have taken to that degree or style. I should have taken the time to try to write something other than this fanciful tale to see where “serious” writing would go, but my beta ran out before I tried.

Check the software out, if you’re interested. Let me know if this is a great new notion or the downfall of existence. I can fall back on being a bartender if this writing thing doesn’t work out (though I hear that robot bartenders are on the ascendance).

[Author’s Note: All of the manipulated electrons in this post are the handiwork of the writer, other than the specified AI entries. But how can you be sure? Check your pileus.]

To Write, Get Your Mind Right

Me, realizing there are still some cookies left

Ahh, such a breezy, casual time, of jokes among friends, neighborly relations, and genial harmony within and without the nation.

Not.

If you’ve paid attention and swallowed the acid flush of the news over the past year and a half (and some therapists suggest not swallowing), you know there’s no joy in Mudville. Societies can’t patch up their wounds because the bandages never arrived, and the bullets keep flying.

Even though we’re not actually post-pandemic, the malaise that happens after trauma, the numbness that follows shock, the blur in trying to focus—that’s here. That’s real. As with millions of others, my personal losses have been high, and our collective losses only pile on more bodies.

Doesn’t help much with writing. My work over past months, scattered and sputtering, ain’t nothing to holler about. Whimper about, yes.

So I’m not going to get into any elements of writing craft or craftiness in this post, or enumerate my own efforts at climbing publishing’s walls. Instead, I’ll let some publishing curation speak for itself, things I’ve found helpful in my own recent pursuit of peace of mind.

May you be wearing the best roller skates in your own pursuits, and let’s meet at the finish line and have a martini.

Linkability

Here are a few of my recent articles, followed by some from other writers, mostly on the mental health front, and which have been helpful in these unhelpful times.

Cocktails During the Pandemic: Bitter and Sweet
Hunkering down with my galpal during the pandemic made for some fancy cocktailing, with wistfulness one of the main mixers. (After reading this again, I don’t like how overwritten the first two paragraphs feel, but it’s out there, now. Good lesson in developing crisper intros.) Published in May 2021 on The Bold Italic.

Whiskey History Revived As Leopold Bros. Goes Old School With 3-Chamber Still
A piece on a Colorado distillery that commissioned a modern still from 19th-century designs that—with great care and attention—produces whiskey with flair and flavor. Published in May 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

How Tiny Ocean Microorganisms Could Kill Your Plastic Fork
I wrote this Popular Mechanics piece about Newlight, an interesting company that “harvests” a plastic-like but organic material, PHB, from microorganisms that consume methane and CO2 and produce the polymer. The material can be shaped into all kinds of things, from straws to sunglasses, and it degrades naturally in the ocean without harm. Their production processes (and every single product path) are all recorded in a blockchain, and it’s all carbon-negative. Published in May 2021 on Popular Mechanics magazine.

Brother’s Bond: Bourbon Is Thicker Than Blood
Who knew that vampires prefer bourbon to blood? The former stars of “The Vampire Diaries,” Ian Somerhalder and Paul Wesley, make a bourbon. And they are mighty serious about it. Published in April 2021 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Other People’s Posts

The Mental Benefits of Being Terrible at Something
“Vanderbilt makes a compelling case that learning something new has myriad advantages, including promoting the brain’s ability to rewire itself, connecting you to new people and new communities, and reengaging our innate curiosity and open-mindedness.”

6 Principles for Navigating Challenges in Life
“A far better approach is what behavioral scientists call tragic optimism: learning how to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite acknowledging inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.

Laws of Emotional Mastery
“If, for example, you’ve developed a thought habit of believing that anything short of perfection is failure, then you are bound to judge yourself a failure often, thus experiencing psychic pain. Your actual problem is not imperfection—which is merely a condition of all humanity, excepting Beyoncé—but the distorted automatic belief that perfection is the only form of success.”

This New Book Has A Tip That Will Change Your Life
“Selective ignorance is not the avoidance of learning,” Hardy says. “It’s simply the intelligence of knowing that with certain things and people, the juice will never be worth the squeeze. It’s knowing what to avoid.”

Anti-Fragility as We Train Ourselves to Improve
“See opportunities in everything. It’s an anti-fragile idea to take advantage of opportunities. When good opportunities arise, be able to take advantage of them. For training, it’s good to learn to see opportunities to practice in everything, and then take advantage of those practice opportunities as much as we can.”

Please Add Chocolate Cake to My Apocalypse Order

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels


Samuel Beckett, that existentialist coyote, has a couple of quotes from his stories and plays that are regularly used to shore one’s self up, even if the quotes seem to be wearing black frocks and carrying scythes. There is the pithy “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” which reminds me of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s “In Search of the Holy Grail” who is in a sword fight, gets his legs and arms cut off and says, “It’s only a flesh wound,” and battles on.

Then there’s Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” adopted by Silicon Valley bro culture as a kind of entrepreneurial mantra. (No bro ever mentions the following paragraphs, with their “Throw up and go … Throw up and back … Throw up for good” and like phrases, which suggest that failing better could necessitate many hot showers.)

Beckett, who had to be a gas at parties, had a bleak outlook on human nature, but leavened it an inch or so with black humor. He never saw 2020, but he would have had some thoughts about it, even if they would be monosyllabic and soaked in bitter herbs. I haven’t thrown up for good, but I definitely feel like I’ve thrown up and back. I suspect much of our country feels the same way.

So, it’s been a melancholic period for me, with inspiration in short supply: a deadly virus, apocalyptic fires in the West and a megalomaniacal president does that to a fellow. I have mostly been working—including trying to get it in front of agents and publishers—on the memoir from my larcenous high school days; you can see what that’s about in the first link below. (By the way, I found a nice resource on querying information at QueryLetter.)

Otherwise, I can’t seem to get my engine started to write any fiction, since truth is not only stranger than fiction these days, it also makes me want to nap. I am going to do some website revamping, and more targeted querying for some articles I am enthusiastic about writing. Enthusiasm, I invite you back.

I hope you are all doing well with your writing work and in your lives. Cheerio!

Linkability

The list is a bit deceiving because I hadn’t put new publications in my last couple of blog posts—lately all I’ve been hearing is “our budget has been cut” and “sorry” from editors (if I hear anything at all). But here’s some of my most recent work. August, sigh, seems like 10 years ago…

Missing Some Memories? I Might Have Stolen Them

Memoirs can take many turns—mine turns towards crime. Specifically, the years I spent as a high-school shoplifter, taking orders and selling the goods. Scandal! Here I go through the mechanics of writing memoirs, best practices and the galling lack of shame I had as a teenage hooligan. Published by the fine folks at WriterUnboxed in September 2020.

The Magic Of Malting Makes For California Whiskey Wonders

Carefully tended malted grains give whiskey (and beer) some oomph. This piece of mine explains some of the techniques, some quite old, in producing quality malts, and the quaffable results. Published in September 2020 by the WhiskeyWash newsletter.

Why the 4468 Mallard Is Such a Badass Train

The speed record for the world’s fastest steam train is held by the Mallard. Set in 1938, at 126mph. Still the record today—that’s steaming. Published in September 2020 on Popular Mechanics magazine.

Pet Sitting Disasters: Read This Before You Apply for Your Next Pet-Sitting Gig.

My account of lunatic, scary, and bewildering experiences house-sitting crazed pets in many parts of the world. Published in September 2020 on The Professional Hobo. (Originally published on the now-defunct Bluntly Magazine.)

Kayaking Elkhorn Slough is a wildlife and otter lover’s delight

My piece on a lovely day amidst the wildlife (among them my girlfriend) of diverse and diverting Elkhorn Slough in central California. Published in August 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

Hands-on Ecuadorian Artisans Are Hands-Down Amazing

My belatedly published piece on a pre-pandemic trip to Ecuador, where my sweetheart and I saw the appealing handiwork of impressively talented artists across many disciplines. Published in August 2020 on Dave’s Travel Corner.

A Treehouse for Adults

The next best thing to flying in your Airstream: glamping in one that’s 25 feet up off the ground. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Amazing Grace, the Trailer that Makes Memories (and Holds Them, Too)

The inspiring life and early death of a beloved daughter prompted her parents to start foundations in her honor, and name their Airstream after her too. Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2020 Airstream Life, published with permission.

And on the mental health front, a front I need in the back as well, here are some pieces from other writers that have been helpful.

Take Ownership of Your Future Self

Curiosity: The Key To A Long Life

Optimism Makes Your Brain Work Better

To Do Your Best Work, Use the 85% Rule

Seeking Happiness Won’t Help You Make Major Personal Decisions. Here’s What Will

Stop Procrastinating Today With Behavioral Science

The Mother of All Books

 

From my early boyhood, I always wanted to be a pro baseball player. When my limitations as a ballplayer became more evident, I thought that being a writer would be just as good (and you didn’t have to try and hit a curveball). I don’t have to search around for why I wanted to be a writer—the answer is as easy as the one for why I’m around: my mother.

Since I was a toddling thing, I saw my mother reading. I saw her reading magazines and newspapers; I saw her reading books. And she wasn’t reading dime-store westerns (though that would have been fine too), but big novels, books that thumped when she set them down on the living room tables. I saw her reading books, enjoying books, getting more books.

My deep thoughts at the time: “Mom likes books. Books are good.”

Reading, Writing (and No Rithmetic)

So, I started reading too. She was right: books are good. The more I read, the more I wanted to write, so I started writing too. Writing is good. (Except when it gives me, as Mark Twain would say, the fantods.)

My mom continued to love reading until about 10 years ago, when her macular degeneration made words on the page a blurry mess. For a while, because she still hankered for that mess, she read with a giant magnifying glass, slowly but steadily, until that became too hard as well. I’ve written a number of books, and she had them all, even those published after she’d stopped reading. She loved books, after all.

She died at her assisted-living home in mid-June, after a stroke in late April. She was a remarkably kind and good person, funny and chatty, and fond of social gatherings and people in general. Even though she was 97, and lived a long and good life, it’s still a shock to have her gone. Whatever part of her I have is the best part of me.

Here’s the obit my sister and I wrote, which gives you a bit of her character:

Eileen Agnes Bentley

Thanks mom, for opening up the world of words, and all of their enchantments, to me. I hold you in my heart forever.

First Paragraphs Crack the Dam, Releasing a Flood of Words

Photo Credit: awebbMHAcad Flickr via Compfight cc

Steven Pressfield has pointedly dubbed it “The Resistance”—that jumble of fear, miscast self-protection and paralysis that prevents us from stepping out of artificial boundaries. Where we tell ourselves, “No, I could never take an acting class, I’m too shy; no, I can’t do math, I’m bad with numbers; no, I can’t apply for that job or ask that person out—that’s out of my league.”

The status quo, even if it’s the drabbest of miserly things, is known—it’s safe, even if that safety is delusional, and doesn’t ask for you to reach, to explore your actual capabilities.

The key to smothering Resistance is getting that first paragraph written.

Well, it might not be the key to landing that part on Broadway, but I have to come at it from the writer’s point of view. When I have a writing assignment, no matter that I’ve been writing pieces for publications for 30 years, I still fret, fuss and dither.

I will begin writing—but only after I clean up that old paint spill near the garage, only after I make sure all the clocks in the house are set to the exact time, only after lunch. Which becomes dinner. Which becomes tomorrow.

But, get the first paragraph down—whoosh!

Avoidance, Anxiety—and Then Flow

For me, all the avoidance of the first few sentences of an article is a concentrated anxiety. So that when I finally get rid of all my old paint stains and my neighbor’s down the street, and set down to type, glory happens.

The dam breaks. Words, supple and galloping. This is not to say that that first paragraph might not be completely changed in the submitted draft, might not be the right words at all, but that getting that one chunk done, that is liberation.

The first paragraph is a tree in the clearing, a map, an open hand.

I experienced this just this past Friday, when I FINALLY began an article that I’d avoided for 10 days. I’d let the Resistance really dig in its heels because the deadline for submission was loose. Where are those paint stains?

But I wrote the initial first two paragraphs on Friday, felt good about them, and Saturday the next 1,000 words came out to completion (with minor editing later, of course). I knew how this would work all along, but still, my fears that the piece wouldn’t come out well, my writing would sag, I’ll never be able to buy a cup of fancy coffee again, those demons whisper yet.

You can beat the Resistance, my friends. Just write that first paragraph.

Links

Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Walking on the Wild(er) Side in Santa Cruz—Plus Beer!
Taking a stroll above the dramatic cliffside ocean-wave carvings at historic Wilder Ranch State Park and heading north to a brewpub with great grub and beer. Part of my Trail Mix series. Published in January 2020 in the San Jose Mercury News.

In Search of Henry Miller’s Bohemian Legacy in Big Sur
Big Sur has many charms, not least of which is the Henry Miller Library, which is neither a library, nor a bookstore, but more of a cultural experience. Weirdos encouraged, as Mr. Miller encouraged them long ago. Published in January 2020 in Discovery magazine, the in-flight mag for Cathay Pacific airlines.

11 Mental Tricks to Stop Overthinking Everything
“When we don’t know something, we tend to fill in the blanks, often with garbage assumptions. Why? Many of us would rather be unhappy than uncertain.” Some mind tricks that seem simple, but actually implementing them could make a sea change.

Good Writing Requires a Guiding Light

And you guys can’t see the crossbow on the right aimed at my head to make me hit deadlines

History has it that Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day. It’s possible that writing The Human Comedy is worth the price of having a stomach shot with holes. I’m a coffee drinker myself, though I don’t bathe in it. But sometimes I need a bit more lift in my days, and I’m not interested in buying any meth.

The thing that needs lifting is my perspective, and here’s why: Lots of people feel sluggish, or moody or just out of sorts during the winter months. For some people who have an inclination toward mild depression, low-light winters can exacerbate the condition all the more. I’ve had mild depression on and off since adolescence, and have dreaded the seasonal smothering of the light for that reason. So, for the last couple of weeks, I’d been exposing myself to 20- to 40-minute daily doses of a 10,000 Lux light-therapy box.

Mild depression is like a winter coat that’s a bit too tight (and that covers your head too). You’re cloaked, but less in warmth than in something that is vaguely numbing. Not good for a dog, not good for a cat, not good for a writer. Interestingly, the device’s manual says you can have an overdose of sorts with the light, with symptoms like feeling squirmy, or over-caffeinated. Or, in the Mayo Clinic’s words, you can experience “mania, euphoria, hyperactivity or agitation associated with bipolar disorder.”

So far, no mania, even though I’m still drinking coffee as well. I haven’t felt like driving my car through the garage door, buying stock in Trump Towers, or starting a chinchilla farm. (Do let me know if these seem like good bets though.) You can see from the image that you need to position the light close to you, at an angle. It’s distracting at first, but after some minutes, I get used to it.

I was amused to see that the model is called a “Happy Light.” Ahh, if only it were that easy! But I’m going to try it over the winter months, and see if I can get a bit brighter, and perhaps have more motivation to write all the pieces that often only get to “I should write about that” before I let them drift off. And even if positive results are placebo-based or in some way psychosomatic, that’s OK too.

I simply can’t spend the same amount of time in which Balzac visited the bathroom after his 50 cups, so the Happy Light will have to do.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Good Festivus to All!

Links

Here are some links to my most recently published articles and a piece from the net that I thought helpful.

Boxing Up the Best of Homemade Nashville

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles who started a business selling subscriptions to homemade and small-production goods (coffee, bed and bath, popcorn, hand towels) made by 300 local vendors. They went from $100 startup costs to $2 million a year. That’s a lot of popcorn. Published in December 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

Adding Aluminum to a Garden of Glass

Dale Chihuly is a glass sculptor of world fame, with roots in Washington state. He established the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition near Seattle’s Space Needle a while back, which includes a glass-blowing studio housed in a vintage Airstream. Local students check out their mind- (and glass-) blowing classes for free. Published in the Fall 2019 edition of Airstream Life magazine. (c) 2019 Airstream Life, published with permission.

Texas Banker Teaches Classes on Painting Your Pet

Another script I wrote for Chris Guillebeau’s Side Hustle podcast, where he discusses people who have started successful and often fascinating side jobs. This one profiles a Texas woman who was a banker and MBA graduate who had a mild interest in art, leading to her teaching art in school districts to teaching dynamic painting classes on the side. And the popularity of those classes exploded. Published in November 2019 on the Side Hustle School.

6 Things Your Life Is Infinitely Better With

“An infinitely better life includes these six components: a clear purpose, a core team of business partners and close friends, full confidence and awareness in yourself and meaningful role models. It’s all attainable right now and you might be closer than you think.”

Gratitude Comes from a Place of Hope

Even at my age, I think I’d do well on the local basketball team

I’m a grumbler. Why does my hip hurt so much today, why didn’t that editor respond to my query, why is our government run by madmen and thieves? I’m so used to my brain’s radio playing Classic Grouch in 24/7 rotation that I can barely hear it, even though my legs dance to it.

But once in a while, when fresh winds blow from a different direction, when my closed lids see that there’s actually a rainbow of colors, when I get out of my own #$%!@&^!! way, I realize that this life stuff might be OK. That there might be good reason to cheer, to celebrate, to acknowledge.

I was reminded of that in a church soup kitchen in the small town of Cotacachi, Ecuador a few days ago. My galpal Alice and I are house-sitting for a month in Cotacachi, at the home of some expats from Atlanta. Cotacachi has many charms, friendly folks, good food, famed leather-goods artisans, and some beautiful surroundings at 8,000 feet in the Andes.

A Little Means a Lot

But all places have their poor. Before our Atlanta homeowners left for a stateside visit, they took us to the Lugar de Esperanza (Place of Hope) soup kitchen where they volunteer to help with food preparation, serving and cleanup of a large breakfast meal to 50–60 indigenous seniors from the town and surrounds.

Most of these people have very little: tiny incomes, tough living conditions, scant belongings. A few even walk a couple of hours to get the meal, which might be their only meal of the day. Some of them are barefoot. The volunteers first hand out vitamins to the gathered souls in the church courtyard, and then they proceed into the soup kitchen building to sit in rows at long tables.

On their way to the building, nearly all of them greeted Alice and I, clasped our hands and smiled and laughed. My Spanish is bad enough, but my Quechua (and all the variants) is non-existent. However, the communication was clear—good cheer and gratitude in all the faces, the body language, the talk among themselves.

They sat at the tables and chatted, and waited patiently waiting for grace to be said by one of the breakfast recipients. At the end of the meal, they filtered out, some with leftover food, again clasping our hands and nodding and thanking us, in Quechua and Spanish. One old guy even kissed my cheek when I bent to shake his hand.

Gratitude Is Better Than Kale

I’m used to my regular meals, my shelter, my health. It’s easy to forget just how good I have it;
gringo privilege is as unconscious as that grumpiness I mentioned. But the thin air up here in Cotacachi let me see clearly that gratitude is an attitude, one that can be encouraged and summoned and cultivated. And my goodness, it can even be good for you.

Alice went back and helped serve one of the meals a few days later; I hope to do it as well. She reported that the group was much the same, in manner and attitude. They appreciated the breakfast, and felt appreciated by the volunteers who appreciated them, a two-way street. That’s a street I need to drive on more often.

Even When the Whiskey Runs Dry, There’s a Story in Every Bottle

Were Pappy here today, he’d be smoking a much more expensive cigar

In the summer of 2011, I made a video homage to Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library TV, only instead of sipping and then tripping on the layered characteristics of wine, I swilled three whiskeys instead. One of those fine vintages was Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon, at the time considered one of the best bourbons in the world.

I’d been given a bottle that past Christmas, and as I explained in the video, at $110.00, it was a galaxy beyond my normal price range. Though I’d been given the whiskey months before, I’d been doling out its precious drams—it was a Christmas miracle that I had any left by summer to make the video.

But alas, even bountiful loaves and fishes must go the way of all things. Yet, after I did suck out the last drop of the distillate with a glass pipette in a thermally regulated room and wearing a blackout mask to concentrate on the taste, I kept the bottle on a shelf in my office. Sort of an aspirational inspiration.

Aspirational indeed.

Let’s See: How ‘Bout Two Ounces of Gold for 750ml of Bourbon?

If you Google Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old, and you read current prices for the hootch, you will lose your eyebrows. You probably won’t find it for under $1,200 a bottle (if that cheapo bottle is actually available), and in some rarefied zones, you will see prices climbing over the $3,000 dazzlement barrier. Zounds!

Sure, Pappy is fine whiskey, and perhaps it was and is the best bourbon in the world. That’s arguable. But $3,000 a bottle is more of a theoretical thing, a result of smashing atoms together and coming up with a particle that can’t be explained. Along the lines of the tulip mania craze in the 1600s in Holland, where the price of tulip bulbs unpredictably lifted to the heavens, and then resoundingly crashed in 1637, a hellish year for bulb brokers.

Now Pappy hasn’t crashed yet, but one suspects as all markets climb and all markets plummet, it will. The whiskey will still be good, but the folks who have hoarded it for its investment value might start mixing it with Coke.

I’ll Take the Porsche Carrera GT and Two Empty Pappy Bottles

But artificially inflated whiskey prices aren’t what I actually wanted to discuss. I want to discuss artificially inflated bottle prices. Empty bottles. I’d heard a bit back that empty Pappy 20-year-old bottles were selling for $75 on eBay. What? Empties? I checked it out, and sure enough, many people had sold their Pappys for $60 and up. Mine had sat on the shelf for 8 years, and I’d never bought another. (And if prices hold, never will.)

So, I put that pup on eBay, and in a week’s time, sure enough it had sold to some lucky fellow in Ohio for $115, including shipping. It wasn’t lost on me that the bottle sold for more than the sizzlingly high price it held when it was full of its soothing elixir. I was pleased that someone had paid me a tidy sum for a bottle that only held vapors (it did still have a nice bouquet), but being a writerly sort, I had to wonder: what was he (and all those other bottle buyers) going to do with the bottle?

Fill the Bottle with Stories

Was he going to fill it with Early Times bourbon and casually whip it out at a poker party to lavishly indulge his friends? “Yeah, I bought it a while back at only $900. I figured you guys were worth it.”

Was he going to fill it with some nice but not nearly as pricy wheated bourbon (maybe even Maker’s Mark), get the cork professionally resealed, and try to get three grand for it on some Dark Web site where he’d be forever anonymous?

Or perhaps he is going to put it on a shelf with some other distinguished empties he bought online, some outrageous 200-year-old single-malt, maybe a Screaming Eagle or two, a Chateau d’Yquem, and invite his new girlfriend over to his mancave to have her gasp at his impeccable palate and his bulging bank account?

Who knows? But it’s amusing to work up a story or two on the disposition of the bottle, and how even empty, it might provide intoxication to come for new owners. In the meantime, I’m scouring the house for eBay potentials. There’s a Sock Monkey that’s been sloppily grinning at me for years now. Surely after I shake off his dust he’s worth a grand or two.

Writing Rejections Give You a Glimmer of Hope


Having been a freelancer writing both nonfiction and fiction for many years, you get used to writing rejections. They used to chafe more years ago, but my skin has thickened, so that I normally can simply say “Next!” and mean it without too much teeth-gritting. Not too much.

But once in a while, rejections are motivational. And not just in the sense of “That blasted editor doesn’t know a good story from a cucumber! I’ll show him/her/it!” (“It” because I’m sure AI will soon be used to make editorial decisions in some offices.) Vengeance can certainly be motivational, but here I speak more of a connective motivation, an empathetic one.

Case in point: Glimmer Train, the fine literary journal and press, has been publishing writers for nearly 30 years. They often champion unknown writers, and are willing to dig around the edges in fiction and nonfiction to bring interesting and exciting voices to the page. I haven’t subscribed to their journal (shame!), but I’ve picked it up in bookstores here and there over the years, and have always been delighted in the reading.

And the yearning.

Getting to the Counter Before the Shop Closes

The yearning is this: I’ve known for a while that Glimmer Train is one of the premiere literary journals, and that to be published there is a new feather in any writer’s quill pen. But I haven’t had confidence in many of my short stories, so I’ve sent only a few pieces over the years. Looking at my submissions spreadsheet (I started tracking electronically in 2003), I sent GT stories in 2007, 2013, and 2014.

Here’s where the motivational parts come in. Early this year, I heard that Glimmer Train was going to shut down in 2019. Not from lack of success, far from it. The reason is easy to understand: the two sisters (one of the appealing things about the magazine—it’s been run by two sisters, all this time) have been the conductors of the train for 30 years, and they are ready to close the station. They read every story that’s submitted: I read somewhere that they read thousands of stories a year. Crickey, I’d be tired too.

In early May, I didn’t send them a story, but a note:

Glimmer Sisters, my stomach dropped when I read that you guys were going to pull the shades on the train and picnic in green pastures. You have done such great work for writers for so long, it seemed like you were a perennial season—Spring comes to mind.

Thank you for your deep and generous work, Tom Bentley

And got this back the same day:

What a kind message, Tom. Thank you. Susan
P.S. Our stomachs dropped, too!

Sending the Story Before It Turns into a Pumpkin

At that point, I hadn’t been writing fiction for a while, spending all my time getting a novel published and marketed. But knowing that the train was pulling into the station, I was motivated. I’d had a story idea for a while and went for it; I sent it off to one of GT’s summer contests, hoping not to get a lump of coal. The “Sorry, no dice” form letter came through yesterday.

That didn’t cut too deep, despite my disappointment, so I sent them this message:

Susan and Linda, thanks for taking a look. Hope things are going well as you prepare your final salutes to a fine publication.

thanks, Tom

And again, a same-day response:

What a kind – and welcome! – message. Thank you, Tom. Susan

Motivation again: they are still accepting submissions through May of 2019. I have another idea for a short story. They are going to get it first.

You have to take your writing motivations where you can get them. If they come from the (rejection) kindness of strangers, all the better.

For Writers (and Readers), Sometimes Simple Is Best

I jump around a lot in my reading, from fiction to nonfiction, genre to genre, era to era. My current novel is O Pioneers!, written by Willa Cather in 1913. At that point, she was living in New York, having left the hardscrabble life of the Great Plains far behind. But that hard land, with its hard light, was in her blood, the source of her Prairie Trilogy of novels, of which Pioneers is the first.

Below is a passage from late in the book, where an omniscient narrator is describing Alexandra, the contained, self-sufficient protagonist of the work. I read this passage several times, noting that its cadence, simple word choice and weight are carriers of what I so often admire in fiction—and perhaps, because my own writing is so different, a literary vein whose mind feels closed to me.

There are a number of authors whose work is painted with spare and simple language that in the reading delivers a kind of haunting gravity. I’m thinking of Marilynne Robinson’s many novels, Kent Haruf’s work, some of Cormac McCarthy’s, a story like Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. There’s a flinty character to how words are strung together that entrances me.

If you haven’t read the work, you won’t have the context of who Alexandra is (nor of Emil, her younger brother), so the impact will be softer. But still, read and listen to the work of the words:

Her personal life, her own realization of herself, was almost a subconscious existence; like an underground river that came to the surface only here and there, at intervals months apart, and then sank again to flow on under her own fields. Nevertheless, the underground stream was there, and it was because she had so much personality to put into her enterprises and succeeded in putting it into them so completely, that her affairs prospered better than those of her neighbors.

 

There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body the joyous germination in the soil. There were days, too, which she and Emil had spent together, upon which she loved to look back. There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land. They had made an early start one morning and had driven a long way before noon. When Emil said he was hungry, they drew back from the road, gave Brigham his oats among the bushes, and climbed up to the top of a grassy bluff to eat their lunch under the shade of some little elm trees. The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it ran in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and preening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade.

 

They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that wild duck. Emil must have felt about it as she did, for afterward, when they were at home, he used sometimes to say, “Sister, you know our duck down there—” Alexandra remembered that day as one of the happiest in her life. Years afterward she thought of the duck as still there, swimming and diving all by herself in the sunlight, a kind of enchanted bird that did not know age or change.

 

Most of Alexandra’s happy memories were as impersonal as this one; yet to her they were very personal. Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries. Even as a girl she had looked upon men as work-fellows. She had grown up in serious times.

 

Simple Is Seductive

And if you lived through one of those late 19th-century Nebraska winters as Cather did, you’d have known serious times too. But what gets me about this little stretch of writing is its clarity and modesty. Its basis is that simple—perhaps entirely forgettable—memory between the siblings, and speaks of their deep bond, which is explored throughout the book, as well as Alexandra’s controlled yet-never-stiff reserve. Beautiful stuff.

Oh, another writer comes to mind too: Paul Bowles. The Sheltering Sky is an almost hallucinatory novel that uses razored, acute (and often very plain) language to describe shattering happenings in both the minds and lives of its characters and in the descriptive passages about North Africa. Whew! I have to read that again.

This care with language and the ability to weave existential weight into spare descriptions fascinates me. Something to aspire to in my own writing, but always to enjoy, regardless.