Speaking on “The Art of Failure” (something I know well)

I’m speaking on “The Art Of Failure” as part of the Wordcrafters & Wine on Wednesdays series:

August 20th, 7-9 PM, Territorial Vineyards Tasting Room, 907 W 3rd Ave, Eugene.

Each month features a different professional writer, agent, or editor. More info:

Click here.

A 4th Of July Rant: Is Patriotism Dead?

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This past week, the United States’ World Cup soccer team played Germany in the final round-robin group-play match for each team. It was an important game, with an opportunity for both teams to advance to the World Cup’s final 16.

Before the game, my wife went to the grocery store and bought mini American flags. My daughters got out the face-painting kit and we decked ourselves out in red, white, and blue, head to toe. Then we drove across town to watch the game, and as we drove, all windows on our car rolled down, we sang and waved the flags, chanting “USA, USA, USA,” to everyone we passed on the street.

From an outsider’s perspective, we were waving the Stars and Stripes so fervently that we could’ve passed as Floridians at an NRA convention.

But this is not Florida. I do not live in Alabama or Tennessee or Georgia or Arkansas. My medium-sized town in Oregon is a liberal college town. Elderly men sport ponytails here. Vinyasa Yoga and organic grocers are the norm. Thousands of cars still carry anti-Bush/Cheney bumper stickers as if the past six years have erased none of the citizens’ bitter memories.

So as my family waved its American flags and chanted “USA,” most people we passed either glared at us or looked confused. I thought that was funny – considering the implications of the coming World Cup game AND the fact that the 4th of July was just around the corner – but people here are interested in neither the World Cup nor the 4th of July.

Five quick facts about me so you don’t get the wrong idea:

  1. I wouldn’t generally consider myself a patriotic person.
  2. The 4th of July is probably my least favorite holiday.
  3. My house is not littered with guns.
  4. I teach my daughters that “The Tea Party” refers to a historical event in Boston not a current political party.
  5. I didn’t vote for Obama the first time around because I voted for Hillary Clinton, and I think it’s ridiculous that in 2014, in the great country of THE United States Of America, we have never had a female president.

All of those statements are true for me, yet still, here I was chanting “USA” and pumping the flag at everyone we passed.

The way I see it, patriotism is complicated. While I realize that our country is flawed, and I do know about our atrocities in El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan, I’m still proud to be an American. There are 212 nations on this planet, and every country is evil in some way. But every country is also good.

So while I recognize that the United States has conducted quite a few shady foreign deals, I also know how much good this country does. The United States contributes more in International Aid each year than any other nation on earth, and its total giving is more than twice what the second-best country commits. Or, for a specific example, I know that our government and US citizens stepped up to rebuild Haiti even though there were zero political points to be gained in that situation. Haiti had nothing to offer the United States, no oil, no minerals, no cushy vacation spots, yet the United States committed to post-earthquake relief like no other country on earth was willing to do. So while the US government makes calculated international chess moves, some of which are questionable at best and despicable at worst, this is also the country that performs incredible acts of altruistic philanthropy. We feed the hungry in Africa, we make attempts at peace-keeping in war-torn nations, we support the U.N.

So we must take the good with the bad. And the good in this country is incredible. Take a minute and consider our freedoms. Imagine what might happen if a common citizen of Iran went online and criticized that country’s government. Imagine what might happen if some blogger in North Korea burned a national flag in front of a government building. What would happen to those citizens of those nations?

Consider the freedom of speech in the Untied States and what that includes.

Consider the right to keep and bear arms.

Consider how anyone in the United States can, at any time, drive state to state, all across this country, move anywhere he or she wants, start a business, practice a religion, espouse a variety of political opinions, change his or her mind, blog about the president, come out of the closet, or tweet to promote communism, socialism, or imperialism.

Sometimes liberals forget our freedoms, and I’m saying this as a liberal. I’m a public school teacher, a social justice advocate, and I don’t believe in censorship. I’ve never voted for a Republican presidential candidate, and I write for VICE Magazine. So I’m not a conservative in any way.

But sometimes I get fed up and have to act like a regular ol’ redneck hick. One of my friends told me that she was rooting for Germany in that World Cup soccer match “because,” she said, “you know, I’m just so embarrassed to be an American.”

And that’s when the patriot came out in me. I said, “Okay, you can root for Germany in that match if you also admit that you love Hitler, Auschwitz, European colonialism, and pulling for the overwhelming favorite in all sporting events.”

My friend said, “But doesn’t it make you a little sick to your stomach to chant USA? Do you know how many foreign assassinations we’ve engineered?”

“Yes,” I said, “and foreign assassinations are wrong. But is genocide better? Are you saying that killing a few enemy combatants to gain foreign oil rights is worse than murdering 33 million Jews? Is that what you’re saying?”

Like I said, I get fed-up sometimes. Then I become an absolute jerk.

My wife, who is a better person than me, pointed out that German soccer players are probably pretty sick of Hitler comments. Maybe so. But I wouldn’t know since I rarely play soccer for the German national team.

I just get so tired of people saying they might leave this country. A young person in dreadlocks said to me on the street, “You know, man, if we bomb one more village in the Middle East, I’m fuckin’ leaving this country for good, you know? I’m going to Thailand, bro. It’s so sick there.”

That’s annoying, and that kid doesn’t even know what he’s talking about, but the worst is celebrities who threaten ex-patriotism, the very celebrities who’ve made millions of dollars via the freedoms that this country affords.

During the reign of the Bush administration, Alec Baldwin kept promising to become an expatriate if certain things happened in this country. He listed what those certain things were, and all of his fears and prognostications came to fruition. Yet still, Baldwin never left the good ole U.S. of A. Thankfully for him, freedom of speech covers hollow threats of disloyalty or…could we call it instead “middle-aged-multi-millionaire-loudmouth angst”?

I can say from experience that it is terribly, terribly difficult to be middle class. It is also terribly, terribly difficult to live in this country where I have to pay minimal taxes and only get to do whatever the hell I want.

AM Northwest TV Spots – Camping And Outdoor Tips

AM Northwest, a regional morning TV show, has me come on every few months to give camping and outdoor tips. Here are the last three shows I was on:

Summer Camping Tips

Fall Camping Tips – And A Sleep-Warm Trick

Let Them Be Eaten By Bears – Teaching Your Kids About The Great Outdoors

Italian Translation of LET THEM BE EATEN BY BEARS Released

My Italian publisher, RCS Libri, has released the Italian version of Bears (Lasciateli giocare con gli orsi), and I did my first Italian interview this last week. Good Earth publishing, China, is currently translating the book into Chinese.

Click to see RCS Libri’s book page.

And the cover:

2857079-9788891503312

 

Rejection Letter TO An MFA Program

Four years ago, I was accepted by the University of Montana’s MFA fiction program. My wife and I liked Missoula, the campus, the outdoor possibilities, the family housing, and the writing faculty. The fiction/nonfiction program at Montana had a long, respected tradition. The whole situation was perfect for us.

But, inexplicably, the directors didn’t offer me a TA or GTF position when I was accepted. At first they said that I could teach intro to composition classes, then they changed their minds. This was strange to me because my teaching experience at that time – 8 years – was much more significant than my writing experience. I had very few publications but my teaching credentials were excellent. Yet they didn’t offer me a chance to teach, and thus I didn’t have enough money to attend. We spoke multiple times on the phone, and they encouraged me to join the program even without a graduate teaching position. They wanted me to work with them. They said it would all work out. And maybe it would have.

But I thought that working a low-wage job off campus, with no health insurance, wasn’t going to suffice, considering that I was married and had a small child, so I had to decline my offer of acceptance. The following is my rejection letter to the faculty of the University of Montana MFA program – cut and pasted from my email. Warning: I might not have been very mature back then.

Subject: My Decision

Dear Faculty:

Weeks ago, I decided that I would attend Montana or no MFA
program at all.  Unlike other top schools, I’ve heard only good
things about Montana.  Nothing about it being overly competitive, too
large, too small, too incestuous.  You, the faculty, are
spoken well of by current and former students.  Workshops are productive
and writers get published.  People leave your program
feeling that they were part of a community for two years, that they did
not go into that room alone.
And so I am sad to turn you down.  I appreciate your acceptance,
your kind words, and the encouragement you have given
me.  I still respect you deeply.  I wish I could have studied fiction
and nonfiction with you.  “My poverty, but not my will,
consents.”  Shakespeare and I spoke recently about food stamps and the
WIC program.  Our whole conversation was in iambic pentameter.
Life is good. I sent my memoir to New York last week, one of my
articles was purchased by Canada’s top climbing
magazine, and my three-year-old learned to spell her name.  So life is
good.  And I will keep writing.
If you get down your TA list that is NOT based on teaching
ability (I have impeccable teaching references), financial need
(my family received public assistance), or scholastic performance (I
earned a 4.0 during my first Master’s), then you are welcome
to contact me.  I will be writing in my kitchen, in the mornings, before
work.
Sincerely,
Peter Brown Hoffmeister.

A Writer Needs A Mother

I’ve often thought that writing is like the paper route I worked for three years as a kid. If you want to write, get up early every day, in all weather, no matter how little sleep you got the night before – whether you partied until 2:17 AM or tucked yourself in quietly with a book at 8:35 PM. Go to work. Write. Stay in your seat. Work for an hour or two, then move on to the rest of your day. This has worked for thousands of writers before you and it will work for you as well.

In interviews and essays I’ve talked about work ethic. Writing is not about talent but daily practice – Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird ideas – that writers need to write every day, to accept the fact that our first drafts will be terrible, that we must revise and edit repeatedly until we have created something of true artistic value. Writing is not complicated. It’s about personal integrity and commitment, daily meditation, meeting personal goals and standards.

All of that is true. Sort of. But a writer needs influences. A writer needs that person around him who values writing, who encourages writing, who makes a young writer into a better writer by challenging him to push further, to never settle, to do one more round of revisions.

A writer needs a mother. Not a literal mother – it could be a teacher, another writer, an inspiring friend, a fellow artist, an uncle, an aunt, or a father – but a writer needs a mother of some sort. So this essay is about a mother. In this case, my real mother.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Reads Books Aloud:

My mother read the Bible aloud to us. She read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Where The Red Fern Grows, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle In Time, Agatha Christie mysteries, and The Child’s History of the World.

She read aloud to us while she drove 80 miles per hour on road trips across the Southwest. She read in a different voice for each character. She read with one hand on the book, three fingers on the steering wheel, and a Pepsi pinched between her index finger and thumb.

Because she couldn’t put books down, because I saw her sneaking away to finish her latest Dorothy Sayers novel, because she wouldn’t go swimming until she’d finished a chapter, I always wanted her to read to me. When she read, I was enraptured. I didn’t talk. I stifled any coughs. I told other people to be quiet. To be read to by my mother was to enter a European cathedral and stare up at the improbable miracles of stone and stained glass.

A writer must hear the written word. There should be a recognition of sound as the words go down on the paper. Fingers should elicit syllables. But this is only possible if someone has read to the writer, if the voices of the spoken word are in the writer’s head. And it’s not too late. If no one ever read to you when you were young, or if no one reads to you now, go to readings at local bookstores. Listen to poets at the library. Listen to MFA students who need audiences for their thesis projects. Ask your husband or friend or colleague to read a passage to you.

If you’re hard up for a reader, watch the movie “A River Runs Through It.” In that movie, Robert Redford commits to passages from the original text by Norman Maclean, and the writing is beautiful.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Values Creation:

I grew up in an artist’s home. My mother drew with charcoal, pencils, and pastels. She painted with acrylics and oil. Experimented with mixed media. Sculpted with clay, chickenwire, and papier-mache. My brothers and sisters and I collected animal skeletons from the desert around our home in Tucson for my mother’s bone mobiles. If an animal we brought home was too fresh, my mother would boil the carcass in bleach, making the smell of warm bleach a smell I still associate – thirty years later – with bones and bright copper wire.

Living out in the desert, my mother home-schooled us, and we studied art history, literary history, and myths. She had all of us choose a favorite artist, get to know that artist’s work, and begin to create art ourselves. We drew and painted. We sculpted. We made collages.

Although I’ve heard some people argue that writing is not really art, that it is part science, part business, or part theatrics, I disagree with that core argument. Writing fiction, poetry, short narratives, or memoir takes incredible imagination. Writing is, at its core, art. Works cannot be repeated, and that dynamic requirement demands creativity. Imagism and evocation are products of the creative mind, so valuing creation of new and engaging mediums is paramount to any writer.

If you didn’t have a big creative influence when you were young, surround yourself with creative people now. But the key is to be around creative people who actually practice art, who produce, who struggle and fail and succeed with real works of art. Find those people and learn from each other, or at least commiserate.

 

A Writer Needs Someone To Say, “Go Write”:

I dropped out of college after my sophomore year to write. I’d taken two creative writing classes and I wanted to simplify my life and focus on writing. I had a part-time job as a supervisor at a drug store, and that job generated enough income to cover rent, utilities, and food bills. So I thought I’d write and work, nothing else. But I quickly got into the habit of working and adventuring, rock climbing and hiking and mountain biking when I wasn’t at the drugstore. I wrote very little. Then not at all. Months went by without me writing a single story.

My mother called me out. We were at a Christmas party and she came up to me and reminded me why I’d dropped out of school. She said, “You said that you were going to write every day.”

“Right,” I said, “Oh yeah.”

She smiled and looked me directly in the eyes. “You said you were going to be a writer.”

“Right,” I said. “I should do that.”

She pointed out my lack of focus, how I had failed to stick to the plan I’d laid out, and I’m grateful for her doing that. I never forgot that moment.

This is an important truth:

A writer isn’t someone who talks about writing or plans to do a writing project. A writer isn’t someone who wears tweeds and a scarf, someone who thinks about lyrical poetry while smoking long-leaf Tobacco from an antique pipe. A writer is someone who writes every day. That’s what a writer is. Published or not.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Teaches About Words:

Home-schooled for seven years at the school my mother called Hoffmeister Country Day School, or HCD for short, we studied the Calvert Day School’s traditional curriculum that we ordered by mail from Baltimore, Maryland. Calvert was founded in 1897 by a Harvard scholar who intended to teach the classics. My mother chose Calvert because of its focus on language, on reading and writing. We read, spelled, wrote, and studied words every day. We learned Latin and French, studied vocabulary, roots, prefixes and suffixes. We poured over our dictionaries, noting Greek word origins and highlighting etymologies.

I wasn’t the most serious student in my family (my older sisters studied and learned far more than me), but my background with words still helps me to this day. I have linguistic aptitude because of that word work. I am capable of using a thesaurus without being intimidated, and I feel intimate with my dictionary who I’ve named Big Honey.

A writer must love words, study words, think about sounds and meanings, care about origins and connotations. If that wasn’t part of your educational background, it’s never too late. Get an unabridged dictionary and go to work. Memorize definitions. Highlight roots. Learn synonyms and antonyms. If you get to know two new words each week (everything about those words), that’s more than 100 words per year. Over ten years, that’s more than 1000.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Values Individuality:

My mother let me sleep outside, swim in the river by myself, wear a beret for all of fourth grade, make up my own language, sleep on my floor in my clothes like a Spartan, and catch poisonous spider to keep in jars in my room. Maybe my mother wasn’t being wise or discerning, or maybe she understood that I needed to be my own person. No one else in my family was like me, but my mother didn’t try to make each of us like the other. She championed differences between individuals.

In the publishing world, a writer who is like every other current bestseller is not a great writer. If it’s difficult to tell the difference between two thriller writers, they’re not going to be read in 50 years. If you want to write something of permanent value (not that most of us have yet, but we hope to), then you have to be an individual. Think about science history, and consider Galileo in particular. There were thousands of scientists who didn’t believe in Galileo’s theories, and what were those guys’ names? Who were the accepted great scientists of his day? If “The Earth Is The Center Of The Universe” guys were writing right now, they’d be writing the new vampire book or The More Hungry Games. But we have to leave cheap imitation to boy bands and NFL touchdown celebrations.

Write something new. Write from you.

 

Could You Be The Mother For Someone Else?

Finally, if you value great writing, you might want to consider a harsh possibility: Maybe you aren’t an incredible writer. Maybe you don’t have it in you. Maybe you’ve put in the work, every day for ten years, and none of your books are going to be the next great American novel. Maybe draft ten is similar to draft two, at least in terms of excellence. I’m not saying to give up, but consider the possibility of influence. What if your passion for writing could be passed on to someone else? What if all of your knowledge and experience is meant to help someone else become great? Think of all the wonderful writers whom you admire. They were all influenced by others, raised by mothers (real or metaphorical) who valued the written word, who encouraged them to produce great art.

Maybe you are someone else’s mother. Maybe you can teach and encourage. Maybe you can help that younger writer to get her first poem published, or place an essay in a magazine. Or maybe you can teach process, structure, or narrative arc. Maybe you understand character development even if your own fictional characters aren’t that original.

I teach a high school creative writing class each year, and I require my young writers to submit two pieces of writing to literary journals. When a few are accepted each year, it’s a wonderful moment. It feels like a victory for the entire class. And who knows? Maybe that first publication is the start of something great. Maybe one of my students will far outshine my literary star (or, more accurately, my literary barrel of burning crude oil). My passion for writing and understanding of craft might not be important for me. Maybe I’m meant to help someone else. And maybe you are too.

Bridge Jumping: On Writing and Failure (pics and video)

I jumped off of a bridge into the Willamette River after school the other day. It was a cold water day – snow run-off – but some young people wanted to know a safe place to do a big jump into the water, so I showed them where a deep enough channel was. See the pics of that jump below.

This jump reminded me of a story, a failure story, and I told it at my reading at the University of Oregon. Click here to see me tell that story (just posted by my publisher, Ben Leroy, this morning).

Here’s a pic of five of us jumping at once (me on the right). Click to expand the pic:

all five

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s the next pic when I’m out of the screen, the other four still in the air:

four

 

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, this is the swim out to the South bank into the cottonwoods, staying together because the water was cold:

swimming out