Sunday, December 29, 2013

Change of Location

Zach Hively has a new website. Check it out at where you can find limerick contests, low-ku poetry (which avoids hai expectations), writings, editorial services, and other goodies.

As of December 2013, "Alone at the Microphone" exists as a memorial to itself. I'm proud of the work I put into blogging about books for five years. As a writer, I found myself wanting to write about more subjects, and in more styles; thus, the new website.

Feel free to browse around here still. When you're finished, please hop on over to the shiny new Zach Hively website to see what juicy pieces await you there.

To all my Microphone readers over the years: you've been awesome. Cheers.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Guest Blogger: Jennifer Mason, Ink Slingin' Samurai

Today, we have a special guest broadcast from Alone at the Microphone. Jennifer Mason writes young adult fiction and nonfiction for children, but that's like saying birds fly -- her writing inspires and amazes, yes, yet it's far from the only thing she does. She offers insightful manuscript critiques for authors of all stripes, she blogs about practical and artful angles on writing, and she will throw you to the ground if you mess with her. (She's earned the "Samurai" part of her website title, which you can visit here to learn more about her critiquing services.)

Of all the writers I know, Jenny is the best at burrowing holes into any topic, digging out any opportunity for (paid!) publication, and backing up her feral creativity with daily grindstone time. I asked her to write just a bit about her most recent successes, and how they might help other writers gift their words to the world.

And she actually obliged. So please, allow me to pass the Microphone to Jenny Mason.


Thank you, Zach! It's an honor to post on your blog -- which, incidentally, has been around long enough to have over 100 posts. Talk about dedication! No wonder you are one of my writer-idols.

I am very proud to announce that my work is now available in two issues of Chicken Soup for the Soul now available to order online!

Actual working links to these books! Click 'em and see!

Setting out to write stories for these anthologies presented me with several unique challenges. For instance, "Papaw's Lantern" encouraged me to share and explain an inexplicable yet uplifting event in my life. "You Do It Your Way, I'll Do It Mine" required that I delve deep into my childhood and recall what it was like to triumph despite being the smallest, the one who knew the least, the one who had so much to learn.

I was truly delighted to be included in both collections because Chicken Soup expects fine writing. Just like my MFA program, they expect stories to have strong verbs, evocative moods, unexpected settings, dialogue, and so forth.

For most good writers, all that is no problem. It's all made up, crafted, perfected, revised, and altered over and over until it reads just so.

But the catch with Chicken Soup is that your story must be true! It must be reflection of your past, your memories. It must also be heartfelt -- which for me, goes without saying because I cannot write anything well unless it comes from my heart.

Essentially, like the world's greatest creative nonfiction writers, you can't make anything up, and yet you still have to wrangle the ethereal chambers of your heart and soul.

That is not to say that only a small and exclusive gang of phenoms can ever hope to get published in a volume. Far from it! I recommend anyone take a look at their site and read about the upcoming issues and the writing guidelines.

You may not initially think that your life and past experiences are interesting enough for the world to read about, but that's where Chicken Soup may just surprise you. And once you've penned your story (or poem), you may likely surprise yourself!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

Already available for pre-order!

Here at the Microphone, fall has seriously kicked in. Who knew that gardening could be so absorbing? And who knew that so many plants mature at the same time? I have a whole new respect for our agricultural forebears.

All that's my way of saying: stay tuned for more bookish goodness. I've had some great reads the past month that I'm itching to write about.

First, though, is a bit of writerly holiday news. (As if autumn weren't surprising us enough -- now I'm asking you to think about Christmas!) I have a nonfiction story coming out this month in a Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas collection. This inclusion feels like quite an accomplishment. A long-running, best-selling national publication likes my writing! Enough to print billions of copies!

(Okay, maybe not billions. But certainly millions.)

My story, "Pepper's Last Gift," is about my family's final Christmas with our present-opening pup. It's apparently quite the jerker of tears; so far, everyone in the family has choked up reading it. And I might have cried a little while writing it. But all in the good way, because Pepper was the kind of dog that inspired love, adoration, and awwwwwws. (Which is to say, she was a dog.)

If you're interested in reading my story (and 100 other Christmas-themed stories), Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas! is available for pre-order.

One of the great things about this series is that anyone at all can share a story. Whether you are an aspiring author, a work-for-hire writer trying to make a living, or just someone with a good story to share with the world, there's likely an upcoming Chicken Soup volume that could have your name in it. I encourage you to take a look at the constantly updated list of book topics.

Happy autumn, everyone!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, by John Irving

Read the book, support the blog!
Some writers are so inextricably linked with place. Think Mark Twain and the Mississippi. Tony Hillerman and the desert Southwest. James Joyce and Dublin.

John Irving writes books set in Iowa, Vienna, and New England (often, all three). He's lived in all three places and has a strong sense of each. But for me, John Irving is inseparable from New England, particularly Vermont and New Hampshire.

So when I was setting off to Vermont last month, I checked out one of the only Irving books I hadn't yet read: Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. I hoped to immerse myself in a bit of Irvingian landscape. In part, I wanted to compare it to the real place; in part, I wanted to imagine Vermont one last time, unaided by reality.

Only when I scrunched up in my airplane window seat with a plastic cup of ginger ale did I realize this book isn't a novel. It's a collection of memoirs, short fiction (the dude hasn't written much of that; why would he, when his novels are often so epic?), and literary appreciation.

This conglomeration turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to my journeys. Novels are often a glimpse into the novelist -- perhaps more than usually so in Irving's case -- so what better way to experience the place than through the man, and to examine the writer than through his home state? If the two really are so strongly linked, then really I was seeing two things at once and getting a greater sense of their whole. Depth perception!

The whole Vermont experience, for me as a writer, was unmatchable. I took more inspiration from the VCFA Summer 2013 graduation ceremony (and the remarkable writers in that crowd -- cheers to all of you!) than I did from my own year's worth of graduate school classes. I returned home more jazzed to create (and capable of creation) than I'd ever felt.

Part of the mindset I cultivated in Vermont, I attribute to feeling so close to Mr. Irving. I had stepped into every one of his novels, which is not to say that I felt I might bump into Garp or Owen Meany around any corner. No, I felt I had come in contact with what makes Irving's books true. True, not in fact, but in emotion. (Irving writes on the first page of Piggy Sneed that "(to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false." I love that idea.)

Sometimes, readers and fans and literary critics get too caught up in what is factual about an author's existence. We get tangled up in which Dublin building is "'The Dead' house," or whether Hillerman's mysteries are based in real cases. The source of a good author's stories is not the facts of his life, but rather, the truth on which he can work his magic of falseness -- his fiction.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Gifts of the Crow, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell

We've had a magpie couple living in the mini-woods along our driveway ever since last fall. "Trouble," we call them, and "tree-toppers," because they insist on flailing to stay atop the highest twig on the tallest trees in the neighborhood. These two magpies punctuate our every morning, and their presence pleased us to no end when we first moved in. (I'd be lying if I said that the abundance of magpies in the Durango area didn't influence our decision to live here.) Every time we take a walk, we greet the birds, whether we can see them or not. "Hi, magpies!" we call. "Hi, trouble!"

This spring, we watched the two schemers collect building materials from nature's Home Depot for their nest. Just as a Labrador retriever will insist on carrying more tennis balls in his mouth than he can actually hold, these gumptious magpies swooped through trees with twigs longer than themselves. We knew they were making babies. "Make babies!" we hollered to them. And before long, we heard series of calls in a fresher, higher pitch than usual. They made babies!

We had to leave the house for a few weeks this summer. Our landlady agreed to water the plants, and I really wanted to ask her to keep an eye on the magpies for us. We didn't want them thinking we had left for good.

The week before our trip, we found two beautiful magpie feathers in the driveway, little gifts from our flighty friends. These wing feathers revealed the white blocks that fan out like poker hands when the magpies take flight, and the black border shows flashes of green and blue and violet when you stare at it just carefully enough.

This story can only have one ending, can't it? When we returned from our time afield, the trees before our house stood strangely still and bare. One day without magpies means they're up to something; two days is an aberration. After a week, we had to acknowledge that our magpies were gone.

At this point, most people who have heard this story pull their lips tight into a sympathetic grimace. But we don't believe that the magpies are dead. (And if they are, they probably went down defending their brood against a bobcat.) These birds are smart; more likely than the death of an entire family is that they relocated. Maybe it was for a change of scenery; maybe the summer monsoons drove them from their nest.

We like to think that our wing feathers were truly gifts from our neighboring magpies. Parting gifts, because they knew us and where we walked, and they also knew they would be leaving soon.

A whole lot of hippie-minded mumbo jumbo? Our human knack for putting human meaning where there's just the cruel facts of nature? Could be. Or it could be that these birds are as clever and brilliant as John Marzluff and Tony Angell have shown them to be. Gifts of the Crow -- the magpie is the cleverest child in the crow family -- is full of anecdotes showing just how much corvids and humans think and act alike. Behind the stories, they have a career's worth of observation and scientific study.

Which means, these magpies remember us, and literally (not just sentimentally) always will. Without the ominous overtones, they know where we live. So we await their potential return. Every jay's caw causes us to dash for the windows, only to be disappointed. Yet our hope has wings; this week, we separately spotted two magpies swooping in that familiar arc over the driveway and into the brush.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk

Desire lines. Palm readers ought to study for those, because as far as I can tell, what one wants (and I mean really wants -- yearning, not craving here) defines a life far more than how long that life is.

Fight Club is case-in-point. An unimaginable number of men across the United States go from beating the teeth out of each other in cement bar basements to forming commando terror squads. This is not behavioral progression we see every day in our neighborhoods. How are we, the readers, supposed to believe it, even within the confines of a novel?

I reason that these fight clubbers must have a reason for their actions. That is, they must have a desire line needing stretched taut. The fight clubs -- and the chances to belong and to alter this humdrum world -- are the nibble at the end of the line. The promise of a catch. Fish to fill a needy belly.

Sometimes, an author can forget that EVERYONE wants SOMETHING. And I mean EVERYONE. The dog in your neighbor's yard wants food, or attention, or to protect her master. The odds are, the humans in your life (and in your stories, if you're one of us stricken with writer's disease) have needs and desires not much more complicated than your neighbor's dog. Food. Shelter. Sex. Love. Attention.

This reasoning started to satisfy my puzzling mind. But, I countered myself, what are the odds that untold hundreds, uncounted thousands, of men would have the same need, filled in the same way? How can I believe such nonsense? Implausible, Palahniuk! Not buying it.

Then I looked around. Groupthink, politics, media -- call it what you will, the mass effect of filling a single void is frequent as farts in an unsupervised Boy Scout camp. (Truly frightening is when that void is created in order to be filled.) What is the Tea Party but a set of insecurities and fears being filled? What is Duck Dynasty but... something I cannot even begin to understand, yet something that apparently fills some perceived need in America today?

Fight Club unsettles readers not because its unstoppable cult is plausible, but because that exact kind of control is exerted over regular citizens every damn day. Some people resist inclusion in these groups, and others flock to them. Resisting is difficult work, though; it wears down willpower, each conscious effort sapping some store of decision-making ability. Eventually, our higher wants worn to little nubbins, we resort to our more primal needs. Protection. Attention. Survival. And we allow others to fill those voids for us.

Play out that scenario to its logical conclusion, and in the end every single one of us will wear down. No one has infinite willpower. That means any human society may never circumvent groupthink entirely, no matter how strongly we may desire to.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Bicycle Diaries, by David Byrne

Read the book, support the blog!

You could say that I've become a bit of a bicycling advocate. The two-wheeled angle certainly stems from my own recent exposures to narrow shoulders and obdurate drivers, but really, pushing for a cycling-friendly environment has much more to do with sustainability and democracy.

Democracy, because pedestrian areas are by definition available to everyone and anyone in a way that roads and streets are not. Sustainability, because folks interact with their urban environments more intimately on foot and on bike; as I wrote last week for the New Mexico Mercury, that interaction could lead to culturally active neighborhoods across a city like Albuquerque.

Some of the biggest obstacles to a vision of a truly pedestrian-friendly American city are, as Mercury commenter Margaret Randall puts it, "a) that developers care about something beside making money, and b) that zoning laws, investment, etc. be conceived of and implemented with quality of life in mind." Such obstacles are certainly daunting in a sprawled and largely corporatized city like Albuquerque.

However, among his many musings and interesting tidbits, David Byrne offers a glimpse of success. Near the end of Bicycle Diaries, Byrne discusses an urban planner named Jan Gehl.

Gehl, according to Byrne, "has successfully transformed Copenhagen into a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city. At least one-third of Copenhagen's workforce gets to work on bikes now! He says it will approach half soon."

In Albuquerque, most of the folks who would even think about a radical pedestrian conversion would feel that the city government and residents would never go along with it.

Byrne continues, "Gehl reveals that his proposals initially met with exactly that kind of opposition over there: the locals said, 'We Danes will never agree to this -- Danish people won't ride bikes...

"Previously, the area bordering this canal [shown in a photograph in the book] had been used for parking; cars would drive along it looking for parking slots. This lovely spot was, not too long ago, primarily an ugly parking lot and a thoroughfare. Now it's a destination. Cars are still allowed to drive here, but not park. And from that one small change the area exploded as a pleasant gathering place and even as a tourist destination. Expensive 'improvements' by the city weren't even necessary to allow this to happen. The customers and local businesses did the improvements -- putting out chairs and installing awnings -- though many of them initially complained that if people couldn't park in front of their establishments their businesses would suffer. That seems to be how Gehl works, making fairly small incremental changes over many years, here and there, that eventually transform the whole city and make it a more livable place...

"Enrique Peñalosa implemented a similar plan in Bogotá, as well as creating the longest pedestrian (and bike) street in the world -- twenty kilometers. He began by closing select streets on weekends, and then gradually, as businesses realized that this actually increased sales and improved the general mood, he added more days and closed more streets. It transformed the life of the city. Needless to say, it reduced the congestion as well. People came in contact with each other more often, went strolling, and enjoyed their city. Peñalosa had to fight an alternative plan that was already on the table -- a $600 million highway project that would have both destroyed large parts of the city and not solved the problem."

Small changes beget big changes. Neuroscience has revealed that making your bed each morning can build in your brain a sense of accomplishment and success that spills into other activities and your general sense of well-being. Imagine if we tried for small and foundational steps toward pedestrian well-being in every American city! The sorts of changes I propose in my article, and that other (and more knowledgeable) urban leaders  have already implemented in large cities, don't necessarily need the initial approval of profit-driven developers. They simply need a few people willing to take some harebrained baby steps.

UPDATE: The New Mexico Mercury asked to run this blog post under the "Voices" section as a follow-up to "Breaking the Cycle," the article I wrote for the site last week. I'm honored. Please visit the Mercury version here, and then check out the rest of the site while you're at it. These guys give intelligent discourse a classy face.