Sunday, May 30, 2010


So how do you LIKE your religion? The issues I’m addressing are not the theological “it is/it isn’t” arguments about whether God exists or how many angels can dance en pointe on the head of John the Baptist, assuming you can get that pesky dove out of his hair. While I’m not quite going to the raw consumer level of household appliances, I’m asking whether your religion is comfortable and whether it’s functional. Does it feel good? Does it work?

On a far more elevated plane, some philosophers are already moving back to the experience level of religion: can you feel the sacred? Do you feel that the universe includes you? Do your beliefs give you joy? In terms of function, does your religion give you a clear basis for ethical decisions, a motive for doing the right thing and a way of figuring out what that is? Will it support you if you have to stand against a majority who differs from you?

These are quite different ways of approaching religion than looking at traditional labels or ethnic contexts. We have been traversing a strange time in which on the one hand there is the strong assertion that all humans are universally invested in the Golden Rule, that all humans are loved by any worthwhile God, that God is in every culture, and so on. At the same time we’ve been wrestling with the Star Trek claim that every culture is unique and we are not justified in criticizing it, even though it might feature cannibalism and terrorism. (Such cultures exist on this planet today.) On the one hand is naivete and on the other is cynicism.

I go to my “symbol” of the dot in the middle of the circle. Start with the dot, which is oneself and one’s internal life, both thought and feeling. I will argue that it is ecological, with the ecology consisting of place, family, institutions, material culture, and then things like music, art, culture. Do not take this as necessarily “elevated.” Surely growing up neglected and filthy in a ghetto housing project with a drunk mother and a violent father IS an ecology with all these things. Nor does it have to be “colorful,” for a suburban split-level with a cheerleader mother and a white collar father, complete with emerald lawn and top-of-the-line barbecue, is still an ecology. Ecologies are the root of religion.

This is the core that a counselor would pursue: how did you fit into the terms of your childhood and what assumptions about the nature of the universe did they teach you? When someone says, “nursery of the stars,” does that sound terrifying or does it sound like a sentimental conceit or do you think it’s about Hollywood actors? As an adult, what assumptions need upgrading? Which ones never proved out anyway? This is not a right/wrong inventory, but a reality check. A good religion gives you reality checks.

In a time when a child can be made into a mutilating and murderous marauder and then pulled out of that environment to go to college in the US (“A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ishmael Beah), a religion that allows forgiveness through transformative rebirth would be vital. But it doesn’t have to be Christianity. If it IS Christianity, the KIND of Christianity that works might well be evangelical, packed with song and movement and people who are at least the same color. A religion that says the only reparation is death will simply eliminate a child who kills. (It was only recently that the US Supreme Court ruled that we would no longer kill the killers who were children at the time.)

In this country and in all others, partly because of the separation of church and state, it is hard to formally reconcile differences between “religions” (worldviews), particularly when the religion privileges one group over the other. William Shatner would be baffled. Even Mr. Spock would be troubled. If one’s identity is based on privilege, one is vulnerable, either to envy or to exploitation.

Here are my provisional criteria for a good religion:

1. It should enfold you like the wings of an angel. You like that? There are no angels. They are a metaphor. There are wings, You should find out more about them, their construction and proper use. And you should see what there is in this galaxy that makes you feel enfolded as well as what enfolds (embraces) others ON THEIR TERMS. It’s a feeling. Use your spindle/mirror cells if you’ve got any. (Some people don’t. What can we do with them?) Remember wings can fly. Wings can fall apart.

2. You shouldn’t have to struggle to justify what you do. If it all seems easy and obvious, and yet everyone is angry at you, best run another reality check. Have you had “mission drift?” Do you need to reboot? More inputs? New app? (That’s about the extent of my computer jargon.)

3. Does it give you chances to celebrate, rejoice, mourn, mark the seasonal wheel at the solstices and equinoxes, rejoin your tribes, undertake pilgrimages? Maybe chances to atone or do penance?

4. Does it tell you to “be where you are,” wash the dishes for the sake of the sensuous ceremony of it, adhere to a discipline, cut loose in a wildly Dionysiac way? Would it let you, like that remarkable Chinese man, step out in front of a tank to protest injustice or protect others? Does it tell you to protect your body?

5. Does it help you think the unthinkable, the inconceivable, the black swan that isn’t a swan and isn’t a color and is neither seen nor suspected? This is the element of revelation. But you don’t have to impose it on everyone else.

6. Can you accept your limits? That you’ve set yourself on an unobtainable or an ephemeral goal? That you might die too soon? Will that acceptance give you consolation and laughter?

7. Can you share with others? Is there a context in which people are unified, even if only dancing to the same music? Marching for the same cause?

8. Does it discourage you from searching for gods in other people, someone to parent you and boss you and make your life beholden to them? Does it discourage you from the fantasy that you ARE God?

9. Does it connect you to the planet in some direct way, like a rooted plant rather than a cut bouquet? Can you feel the sun and the rain, the light and the dark?

10. Does it keep you from making lists like this which are only a beginning and not to be taken as a fail-safe recipe?

Saturday, May 29, 2010


When I googled the phrase “remnant anthropology” nothing came up, so I don’t know whether it’s technically supposed to refer to either anthropology done with a remnant group of people from a defined culture or whether it’s about the impulse to “save” as much as possible of a culture clearly doomed. Maybe it’s a muddle. Anyway, I’ll go ahead and embroider on an article in “Montana, the Magazine of Western History” called “Following the Old North Trail to Berlin” by Steven L. Grafe in the Spring, 2010, issue.

The article is about the relationship between Walter McClintock and Arthur Nevin, who is NOT the composer of “Narcissus” by ETHELBERT Nevin which I laboriously pounded away at when my piano teacher locked me in a small room with said instrument, saying I could not come out until I mastered the piece. Here’s the url of a YouTube version, much more largo than Mrs. Winter’s notion. She liked spritely. This “Hiawathan” version is illustrated with a portrait of a boy painted by Caravaggio.

But that has nothing to do with Arthur Nevin and Walter McClintock who visited the Blackfeet Reservation in 1903 with the goal of creating an opera about a Blackfeet myth called “Poia” around the North Star personified. That was the same year my father-in-law, Thad Scriver, arrived in Browning to make a living in the mercantile trade. He said he did know McClintock, who was still visiting year-after-year in the Forties. This thrilled Bob Scriver, a musician and a bit of a composer. In fact, Bob himself composed a little Christmas operetta about a star performed by the Browning Schools, where he taught. (I hope the music is somewhere in the unprocessed materials the Montana Historical Society owns.) It’s easy to understand why anyone, particularly anyone early in the twentieth century before light pollution developed even in Montana, would be nearly overwhelmed by stars. Today you’d have to go to outer space to see them as they were.

Trying to capture fraying cultures and to reinvent them with “modern” contexts like opera (though opera itself was meant to recapture the dimensions of Greek tragedy) is Romantic. The grip of this point of view is so strong that even the Native Americans have now begun to chafe against it, because it insists on the 19th century outsider view that sees “other” cultures as innocently childlike, noble, and idealized. Anything that seems adult or businesslike finds no sympathy. Romantics would have no problem with Arthur Nevin who was apparently quite childlike and impractical. I googled and found this vid, which has nothing to do with Nevin or Blackfeet, but is an excellent depiction of the Romantic attitude: a lone yearning man traveling through nature. At this website is a quite Romantic version of the actual legend. To no avail I looked for a recording of the music. If I find it later, I’ll post the url.

“Indianist” composers of this period tended to be naive, offering music like “Song of Hiawatha” with its BOOM-buh-buh-buh, BOOM-buh-buh-buh “tom-toms” and no consciousness of the sonnet-like structure of indigenous songs. Still, McClintock did his best to steer Nevin to reality. “The Old North Trail” records the melodies of a number of songs of the Blackfeet.

In 1903 the buffalo had been gone for decades and the hide lodges had all worn out, which is why McClintock’s metaphor of lodges as lanterns was inspired by firelight inside canvas tipis. The people had mostly been born since the 1850 prairie treaties and were living within the boundaries of reservations, but they had not greatly changed their ways and kept their ceremonies alive to the extent that the Indian agents and missionaries would tolerate them. In fact, they survived underground until the Sixties and lately have revived. On page 48 is a photo of the handsome and preening Nevin, who has just had his face ceremonially painted as a sign of blessing. On page 47 Mad Wolf and Gives to the Sun are photographed with their Medicine Pipe Bundle on a tripod. The pipe Mad Wolf is holding is NOT a Medicine Pipe but a traditional social pipe with a Sioux red stone bowl. Smoking structured many gatherings in something like the same way as serving coffee.

When Nevin and McClintock went to Berlin, hoping to find support for “Poia,” they were helped by the American-born Lillie Greenough de Hegerman-Lindencrone, who was married to the Danish ambassador to Germany. She was a singer and a lady-in-waiting to the German empress. (Talk about a Romantic context!) Bob Scriver’s first wife was the granddaughter of a Greenough woman. This has absolutely no significance whatsoever, but artists and musicians grasp at straws, so Bob would have liked to have known.

Not only was there insufficient support for the opera in Berlin, but when it was finally presented (somewhat entangled in the personality of Teddy Roosevelt and German contempt for the underside of Romantic which is primitive savagery) it was booed from the stage and went broke. “Poia” lay dormant until the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial revival of all things peripheral. Even then, the more sophisticated and contemporary opera, “Summer Sun, Winter Moon,” by the warm and accessible composer Rob Kapilow with libretto by Darrell Kipp, was more appealing to some. There ARE other Indian operas. In 1951 my family attended an open air version of “Bridge of the Gods” which personified the great volcanic peaks of the Cascades in a love story.

Arthur Nevin blamed all the troubles of “Poia” on McClintock, but I reject that notion, just as I reject the accusation by Sherry Smith in her book “Reimagining Indians” that McClintock betrayed the Blackfeet by not doing battle in Washington, D.C., to bring about better political outcomes. It’s true enough that McClintock, with his tales and photos of the early century and his Romantic attitude throughout his lecture and “anthropology” career, didn’t think much about the coming world. But he was a young man with a good education (Yale), a true friendship with Mad Wolf, and the financial resources (mercantile father) to bring generous gifts every year. “The Old North Trail” is a MAJOR contribution. McClintock never married and no doubt someone will make something of that. (Nevin married an older woman with children.)

History is a tricky business. World-views of the time become unintelligible, let along indefensible. Anthropology is even now trying to re-frame itself in some way that can get outside culture, since our own 20th century assumptions have become remnants. But how can one be human without some kind of culture, whether remnant, constructed or simply unconscious? Can we be blamed for loving the Romantic and the Operatic?

Friday, May 28, 2010


Suppose you’re a stone narcissist like me. (Barrus, my co-writer is mistakenly taken to be a narcissist, but he’s actually a cleverly disguised altruist. Meanwhile, the fact that I was a teacher and minister misleads people to think that I might be altruistic.)

Let’s suppose you simply are all wrapped up in the actual process of writing, that it is your drug of choice. (Although dealing with it might mean indulging in more traditional pain-ameliorating or drive-sustaining or vision-producing substances. Balzac’s coffee, Coleridge’s opium, Burroughs’ heroin, everyone’s pot and booze.)

You will need an income or someone to provide for you. Such someones have a tendency to either demand that you love them, that you give them more of your time than you want to, or that you’d better become famous so their sacrifice will be worth it. These people were once called “patrons” and either there’s a shortage or they have no interest in me. I would reject them anyway.

You will need to be calloused or buffered against those outside your circle because if you are weak they will victimize you, if you are strong they will attach, and if you ignore them they will stalk and stigmatize you. The more dangerous ones will make a hero of you. Years after your martyr’s death from malnutrition they will be making fortunes by selling slivers of your bones. (Tim’s come pre-shattered.)

Let’s assume that we’re talking books as objects here, not books as xo code. There is a certain kind of person who loves books as objects that are as entwined with the writing as Chinese ideograms are with words but also images. Such people love the binding, so one year the Santa Fe Indian Art Fair was won by an Indian policeman who wrote and illustrated stories about Indians, then bound them in painted and beaded covers. Few copies, high prices.

Some people love the layout and font, the classic finger feel and smell of a page, so they prepare chapbooks on old letterpresses, where the type has to be set by hand in a “typestick”, picking each letter out of the little compartment in a drawer and putting it into a metal frame on a table. For a careful aesthetician, the spacing, the design of the font, the careful composition of marks on paper AS NOTHING MORE than just that, contributes to the value of the words, which -- of course -- should be worth all that effort.

But also, the naive effort, the crayoned scrawls of a child drawing on construction paper tied together with yarn, has value for the seeing eye. On video I’ve watched Tim’s wife coaching her kindergarten Navajos through this process, right down to sitting in the Author’s Chair to give a “reading.” The Cinematheque boys, far more sophisticated, don’t film each other making art, but there is a sequence over several days in which Tim creates a book directly onto paper. “From There I Saw” combines text and abstract paint while Pascal provided a running commentary on the process. In the end it was auctioned online, one-of-a-kind, unique. We imagine our ancestor neanderthals sketching massive bison onto cave walls by the flare of their torches and we buy Taos 7 paintings of an NA man in front of a stretched hide, carefully painting pictographs. Those are “writing,” too, capable of summoning up the inner dream that is reading.

Here’s a totally self-indulgent example of a graphic novel character from my own childhood. (So selfish that I’ll require you to either tilt your head or turn your monitor on its side, because I can’t cram it onto my scanner except sideways.) My parents gave us endless supplies of cheap “scrapbooks” of newsprint. On rainy days like this one (there were lots of them in Portland) we didn’t watch TV. Instead we drew in our scrapbooks. I drew endless "comic books" about ordinary things. This is an on-going character named “Herbert,” who was a slacker with a fondness for striped socks and bowls of apples. (I just liked to draw them. They didn’t have much character application.) For some reason, he smoked constantly though no one in my household did. (Maybe I just liked to draw the mysteriously wicked.) Many plotlines were about pesky flies or getting dressed to go out. Herbert did a lot of reading, but everyone I knew did that. I still have an awareness of the need for a good reading light and a free-standing ashtray. (For those who smoke.) At the time, we greatly admired Time magazine. I don’t know where the purple pajamas came from, but the green chair and ottoman are a color reversal of the fact that each of my parents had a red reading chair (the little red chair and the big red chair), which to a child seemed significant. As a grownup, I have doted on ottomans, but we didn’t have any then. We did have several small side tables, some of which I still own.

Far more sophisticated self-made books were the series by Gwen Frostic which combined nature poetry and prints on paper she made herself, sometimes including a pressed butterfly or flower in the paper. She bound them and sold them in a Benzonia, Michigan, home industry that is just closing down now -- a fifty-year run that outlived her. Those who found Frostic books treasure them and some day they will increase in value. (I made a whole post about her some while ago.)

People who bind books for a living are sometimes rehabilitating worn books, like those in libraries or making special “presentation” or trophy copies. Bob’s gimmick for “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains” was to design a box on top of the box that held the book, so that the box could hold a branch of sage. People open their version to show me with great seriousness and pride.

But now I’m off the topic, which is writing for oneself. I think I wandered off because I don’t really want to tell you what’s my most private life. It’s difficult, intricate, draws enormous stores of psychic power, is lonely, and rewarding. To me it is the definition of being human, the capacity to create a virtual world quite separate but vitally related to the real world we all share. It is my identity. my growing edge, my consolation, and my joy. I suppose its therapeutic, more so than buying a book. Maybe computers have turned us from a nation of readers to a nation of writers.

Thursday, May 27, 2010



Sound files can be used on blogs and websites or radio stations, or sold like music through iTunes, or put on CD’s, or made available for download on the Internet through a specialized website. You can add music, sound effects, interviews with other people, and it’s all still publishing. You just have to think of it.

“Podcasting” is a way of transmitting spoken words that is assumed to be something like a series radio program or like a written column, but it could be anything. iTunes carries them and so do others. This is as much dependent on mp3 players as anything else, since that’s the mode that makes the medium transmittable and transportable, so you can stick it in your pocket or your automobile player and take enormous amounts of narrative or argument along with you while you commute or drive cross-country. For some people it replaces radio, even Sirius satellite radio.

Spoken words are not for everyone. Even if you like a story program similar to the ones that often show up on NPR, a certain amount of fussing is necessary to figure out how to operate the technology, decide what kind of earphones or ear buds you want, make some kind of peace with safety -- an issue that first came along with the Walkman, the first portable private sound technology, a huge improvement on boom boxes. Some people don’t have the ears for it, some people don’t have the brains for it (I don’t mean stupid, I mean developing the brain's ability to process that specific thing.) and some people simply hate the available content.


Now we’re on YouTube territory. A video camera costs about a hundred dollars and goes anywhere in your pocket, just like a digital still photo camera. Once you master the programs that let you mix media, you’re in Big Girl territory, multi-media, vlogs. Hollywood, here you come! Well, at least maybe local TV. This can’t be so hard. Graduating classes do it every June, though the one I saw just now was still photos in a “slideshow” with an added soundtrack rather than a true video which I suppose would mean moving images and editing, both of which can be done with a hundred dollar camera and a computer rather than the expensive lenses and mixers of the past.

Again, this is a two-level skill: one is mastering the technology and the other is having anything worth communicating to anyone else. It helps to be driven by a issue or a vision and it helps to be young.


Two or more persons can easily split the task (you write a story and I’ll play a keyboard behind you) or brainstorm together. This is a good solution to technology for some people but not for others. It suggests intergenerational cooperation or even rural/urban collaboration, although once you’re on the Internet being rural is not much of a problem as long as you’re willing to stretch your consciousness to worldviews other than the local. Not subject matter -- world view.

Less admired is covert collaboration like ghost-writing where one person has the skill and the other has the story. One could say that all editing is collaboration.


Since it’s possible to transfer anything that shows up on a screen to paper, it is easy to make calendars or family picture books, maybe one-offs for occasions like reunions or conferences. But technology also makes photos improvable -- more intense, more focused, blended or superimposed. Cross-media “writing” of publishable photo and caption means a far greater capacity and sensitivity.


“For those not on Twitter - here's the most popular stat I've broadcast thus far from BEA: "7% of books published generate 87% of book sales. And 93% of all published books sell less than 1,000 copies each."

Of course, this depends a lot on what you consider books and what you consider published. Does this include ebooks or local books (most of which never show up in any statistics) or textbooks? Do you think of publishers as traditional companies in Manhattan? I have a friend who is determined that in his retirement he will publish a book that will make him famous and at least a little wealthier. His paradigm for doing this is twenty years -- maybe more -- out of date. He thinks he will be brilliant, though his ideas are totally dependent on other people, and that there is a paternalist force (maybe an agent) who will take him on, the way his professors did at grad school. He is discovering that writers, like politicians, are now vetted for possible public disapproval and that he has a couple of major political blunders in his past.

The real money is not in publishing. It is not in brilliant scholarship. It is not in some kind of ethnic revelation or societal shocking situation. It is not in a diligent agent or even in an ingenious marketing platform. It’s not in the readers. It’s in serving the very large population of people yearning to write and be published. It’s every bit as good as the market for get rich quick schemes, diet programs, and guides to how to get laid.

I see this specifically in the Native American community. Most of them have a vague notion that if they wrote a book, their lives would be transformed. This is based mostly on the 19th century practice of gents coming to the rez and falling in with an informant. (If these gents are academic people, they look for someone who seems to have a lot of rather formal approval and if they are the adventurous type they hang out in bars.) I wrote in an earlier post about the pervasive idea that NA subject matter consists of Napi stories, ceremonial secrets, or atrocities of the past and present. Almost nothing has been written about the twentieth century, although it’s beginning: code-talkers, basketball, NA law, family history.

What these folks need is the business machinery: people who have knowledge and contacts. A good example might be the local NA individuals who can organize casting for Hollywood, attract good candidates, support their travel, teach them what they need to know. This secondary level of business is coming alive in other fields in contract teaching of skills like flagging traffic or running heavy equipment or organizing fire fighters. There’s no reason why it can’t work for writing of one kind or another except for a few factors that pertain to every author.

You have to think of it in the first place.
You have learn technology, even the technology of grammar and spelling.
You have to be willing to make mistakes, maybe even make a fool of yourself.
You need networking, contacts, go-to people, examples. All this comes from being a good consumer: reading, watching, reflecting.

If you can help people do these things, you can make money. But I think we are beyond the naive, political and market based, undersubsidized “book festival.” Even the BoxExpo America now happening in Manhattan has not grasped it yet.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010




Since books and education are so closely entwined (or have been until now), it has seemed natural for universities to create in-house publishers. Also, some religious groups have undertaken publishing, notably Beacon Press (UUA) or the Paulist Press, or Christian Science. The advantage and disadvantage is that since the funding and direction comes from an institution, the press has little autonomy and is often cut back severely in a budget crisis. But they can qualify for funding from philanthropies or the government. The basic cost of my book at the University of Calgary Press depended upon a grant from a foundation supporting Alberta culture. (Bob’s parents were Anglo-Quebecois, two of Bob’s wives were Canadian, and his big breakthrough was at the Glenbow in Calgary.)

I would prefer not to say that academic presses have higher standards, though I’m sure they conform to most peoples’ definition of “higher.” Surely, the content must be scholarly or of interest to scholars -- though that scholarship might be focused on pop culture. Presumably, the grammar, usage and spelling will be unchallengeable. But these are ideals. Also, every press is rife with politics, but a press attached to a denomination or a university can be brought to its knees by political kudzu that has nothing to do with individual books or even publishing.

More parts are added to a book in this context: an index, footnotes, a bibliography -- all meant to be additions that help scholars use the material, which is the assumption of purpose. Some academic presses do little more than publish theses written by faculty members, who have for a while been living by the motto “publish or perish.” Books and participation in journals and anthologies as proof of worthiness have grown so important that they tend to compromise effective classroom teaching by stealing time meant for students. BUT all academic books are reviewed by peers of the author and must be approved by a governing board. If the peers are also competitors, that can be trouble. If the governing board has some issues, that’s a problem. I found that Bob Scriver's past and the fact that his sculpture has value were complications in selling a book about him, since some publishers were players in the Western art game.

University presses have turned to e-publishing with some relief. U of Nebraska Press was saved by Print on Demand and has been emptying its warehouse with deep discounts while keeping the books alive with POD. Journals can be produced much more cheaply and made available much more widely. There are some topics academics follow that need updating constantly because of new ideas or new discoveries. These are well-suited to online journals. The temperament of academics may suit online books and journals, since they already sit at computers quite a lot. Ebooks relieve the pressure on their office bookshelves. Classroom custom “textbooks” become far more possible.

Native American writers with some academic experience may find themselves welcomed at a university press, but the latter tend to be dominated by one definition of what NA thought is, either theory or life-story, and will reject whomever doesn’t fit that pattern. NA degree programs and departments, except for the Western states, are no longer so active in generating materials and therefore opportunities. The urgency about saving disappearing cultures (“remnant anthropology”) is fading. At one point the University of Oklahoma Press unilaterally cancelled scores of books they had already contracted to publish, simply because of lack of resources.


This is pretty simple. You take your prepared digitized copy -- maybe you do that yourself on your own computer or maybe you get someone else to do it -- to a job printer in your area and get them to make it into books. Often they are small enough to staple instead of binding. Most commonly they are paperback. You pay the printer in advance. Then you’ll need to figure out how to sell the books: put an ad in the paper, carry them to book fairs, sell off your arm at a rodeo, put up a booth at a festival, leave them on consignment with shops -- not necessarily book shops. Many people do this. Many others look for this kind of book, considering them vital and authentic.

An alternative that worked for me when I was starting out was simply printing the pages on my computer, spiral-binding them with a machine I bought, and selling them through my blog or by consignment. I could have typed out the pages and xeroxed them. Office supply Big Box stories will print from discs, xerox, and/or bind in several different styles. Consignment for sale means a LOT of book-keeping and driving so you know what you dropped off where. Mailing is expensive. Do not think “bookstore,” but rather find places where the people who will like your book might see it: bait shop, service station, ice cream shop, historical society. The shop may not send you the money, so you’ll have to go collect. They’ll likely not re-order automatically, so you’ll have to be proactive about calling to see if they can sell more books.

Expect to do some pump-priming by giving books away. If you’re on good terms with the local newspapers, radio and TV interview shows, use ‘em. If you can tie into an event, that’s good. Setting up readings is a good deal but they are often poorly attended. Reviewers are tough to find because newspapers don’t run them much anymore and people who will write reviews are swamped. Keep in mind the 80-20 rule. Sales of 20% of your books should pay for 80% of your original costs.


This is a formal and international way of doing the same thing as above, except for using a “self-publishing” service that will accept your manuscript via the Internet, print and bind it to professional standards “on-demand” whenever orders come in, and mail it to the customer. They will also make a lot of good suggestions, such as who can help with parts of the task (editing, layout, distribution, promotion). They often have “forums” where writers visit and a lot can be learned. I say “international” because the production plant may be somewhere that labor is cheap. The service I use,, was printing in Great Britain.

Again, it will be necessary to do all the preparation and all the post-production advertisement and hand-selling yourself unless you find someone to contract that part. If you want the book to be listed on Amazon, you will need an ISBN (international standardized book number) because that’s how they keep track of them. (That’s the bar code on the back of the book.) But simply putting the book on a blog means it will be listed in Google.

If you blog a lot and if the material is serious and worthy, it can be gathered into a blook, maybe a book of essays, with few or no changes -- or maybe a work of fiction that was written in pieces. Some people serialize novels on a blog just the way Dickens used to do in the newspaper. Or it could be the way “columns” used to be, on-going comment and news. Printing them into a book might or might not be a good idea.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010



YOU AND EVERYBODY ELSE! But let’s think about it a little bit first.


These are the steps of conventional publishing:

You write something terrific. At one time you would simply mail or hand-carry it to a “publisher” who seemed friendly to your topic and style. The publisher would put it on the “slush pile” and eventually read it -- or more likely someone paid to pre-read would do triage. The criteria is NOT “terrrificness” but rather “what will sell.” That generally becomes “what worked last time.” This publisher might think what will sell is quite different from what you think might sell. Today’s author must convince the publisher that their “terrific” manuscript will sell by suggesting who might buy it and what total sales might amount to. Some publishers explicitly ask for a marketing plan with the manuscript.

If you don’t have time or don’t know how to do this, you could hire an agent whose job would be to find and convince the right publisher. This means you have to find and convince the agent. These days they are likely to be women who have lost their jobs as editors with publishers who are cutting back (the costs of publishing are going up steeply) but have a great many contacts. They are even more dependent on those publishers than they were when they were on salary, so that’s where their loyalties lie -- not with the writer. Some publishers, maybe feeling a little guilty about firing these faithful women, will not buy directly from writers. You MUST have an agent.

After the book is accepted and if the manuscript is complete (it would be near impossible to sell an incomplete book), an editor will go over it with the idea of making it even more sale-able: shorter maybe (books now seem to be about 200 pages long); take out a few parts that are objectionable; re-organize; note parts that already exist in other books, maybe ask for new parts. Later there will be line-editing: grammar, punctuation, proper spelling, checking out footnotes to be sure they’re accurate.

There are parts that are not the body: foreword, acknowledgments, table of contents, maybe appendixes. Then there are permissions to get if you used pieces of someone else’s work. Illustrations might need to be commissioned. Photos go through processing to improve them.

These days the publisher increasingly expects a digital manuscript that needs little or no editorial intervention. The kind of rough genius that used to be admired and “brought along” by an editor, is now too expensive. And it takes time, which no one has.

Some former business conventions are in danger. An “advance” against profits, esp. the kind of huge amounts that the media promotes, are obsolete except for near-guaranteed best sellers. Instead there is profit-sharing as sales pan out. Keep in mind that the publisher may deduct any costs of doing business. The U of Calgary Press advanced me $200 so I could drive up to Calgary to speak to promote my book. That comes out of my theoretical profit. I have yet to receive a check that is payment for book sales. In the end I could have a negative balance.

In the past the publisher estimated what sales might be and ordered that many copies from the printer. These books had to be stored in a warehouse and physically shipped to stores. If a publisher overestimated the number of books that would sell, the author’s contract might allow them to buy the leftover copies at a discount to sell at readings or from home. I was surprised to hear how much of the publisher’s final profit depended on this “ego factor.”

Internet book sales by remainder houses have also helped to dispose of books. If the books are all sold, the book is “out of print” until the publisher orders a new printing. Runaway best sellers can go through a number of printings. The 20/80 rule from the point of view of the publisher is that 20% of the books published must pay for 80% of the costs of publishing all the rest. (20-80 is not actual numbers, but is meant to convey that a few books carry the business.) The trick is figuring out WHICH few are profit-makers and what to do about what are sometimes called “mid-list books,” carried in the catalogue as available but not hot sellers.

Before the Internet, books were bought mostly in bookstores, and distributors connected the publishers to the bookstores, sometimes as intermediary warehouses that might specialize. (There used to be a woman in my “dog-catching” area in Portland who specialized in locating Native American books and notifying bookstores of their existence.) Some distributors or presses hire reps who go physically to bookstores or markets like schools to urge the acquisition of certain books. Textbooks are major business. These on-the-ground reps hugely influence what will sell. In the Sixties when I was still teaching in the Browning Public Schools, one of them did a bit of recruiting and suggested I write a textbook for NA kids. I just didn’t have the skills or interest at the time. Such a thing is unheard-of now. Timing is a major part of the writing business.

Bookstores are conventionally allowed to return any books that don’t sell. Years ago Russell Chatham spoke at the Montana Festival of the Book and being the “forthright” person he is (my hero!), identified two major problems for publishers. One was having to keep a warehouse full of books, which were taxed as property. He solved this by not binding the books until they were ordered, arguing that they were only sheets of paper with writing until the binding was added. The other problem was the practice of returning books from the bookstore shelf. Chatham only published books he loved and believed in (usually by friends) and since he is a famous painter, made the value-added gift of painting something remarkable for the cover. When he got back the books that had been on the bookstore shelf, he often found that they were shopworn or that big dayglo “sale” stickers had been slapped onto them over the top of his subtle landscapes. They were now unsaleable.

The internet invention of the Long Tail, combined with Print on Demand, greatly improves the life of a publisher. The Long Tail means that some books will sell a few copies for many years, making up in longevity what they lack in volume and providing an outside chance that a book could “catch fire” and suddenly flare up in a burst of popularity and sales. Print on Demand is something like Chatham’s strategy of “bind on demand,” which still means he has to rent a warehouse and hope the roof doesn’t leak and the building is fireproof. POD means that books are not printed until they are ordered.

The problem that is NOT solved is the passive or impulse book buyer. Instead of seeking some specific book, they buy only what they can see and throw into their shopping cart. Proportionally fewer book buyers will make the effort of ordering, much less search around to see what’s available. Publishers are selling through Big Box stores at deep discounts to get high numbers of sales through eyeballs.

I’m writing this post in part for the several potential writers on the Blackfeet reservation. They need to know that Native American books are vulnerable to all these forces. The NA Renaissance that made the reputation of Jimmy Welch, Louise Erdrich and dozens of others was based on the idea that the books would sell like hotcakes and some of them did -- usually the most “white” ones. They were read as novels rather than the kind of anthropological records that made the early white writers about Indians famous. But the NA novels were not marketed to reservation people and got to small towns only through schools and libraries. They sold to urban white people. Over-optimistic publishers ended up remaindering many copies. They concluded that the category just didn’t make money and they didn’t want to wait for readers to figure it out. Meanwhile, back on the rez, those few who bought books were reading vampire romances.


Monday, May 24, 2010

"THE GOVERNESS:" Reflections

The 1998 movie called “The Governess” is a pastiche of different tropes with a mix of motives. For those who simply let things in movies go by, pulled along by a narrative thread, it is about a young woman in a London ghetto whose beloved father dies suddenly, leaving the family so bereft of funds that the only way of recovering is marrying off the elder daughter to a rich fishmonger. Rebelling, she works as a governess in a remote castle where she falls in love with the “lord and master,” learns the not-quite-invented art of photography, is betrayed, and returns home to support the family with her camera studio. Simple enough to hang lots of ideas on it.

First, this young woman is pointedly Jewish, raised in an opulent bubble, ambivalent about the “outside world.” The opening of the movie is powerfully moving, a magnificent rendering of Jewish worship which leads us to expect something quite different. But it cuts away to giggling girls and then to taunts from Christian street whores. Confusing, but evidently the contents of the jumbled minds of sisters at bedtime. We have no explanations of the political context. Maybe this sequence from majesty to silliness to defiant revulsion is meant to be it. Written and directed by Sandra Goldbacher, this is her first full-length movie. Her primary venues have been art films and advertising, which shows in the emphasis on surface.

The tropes here are 19th century conventional compartmented society, invaded by modern feminism. The three producers are all women, but the excellent cinematography is by Ashley Rowe, a man with a fairly hefty resume that includes “Copying Beethoven” (which explores similar tropes about 19th century girls who must work for a living) and “The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone” (the trope of the aging woman and ambitious sexy young man, a reversal of the previous pattern).

If one were including “The Governess” in a course about tropes in film, other candidates might be “Copying Beethoven,” with “Jane Eyre” as the original matrix. Probably the most powerful version is A.S. Byatt’s “Angels and Insects.” (1995) directed by Philip Haas. The screenplay is credited to “Belinda Haas.” Haas’ first credit as director of a film was “A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China or: Surface Is Illusion But So Is Depth” (1988). a documentary written by David Hockney. I’d love to see it. Sounds like a good clue.

In “The Governess” the persuasion is that knowledge is not gender-assigned and that an intelligent woman is a turn-on. I can only hope both are true. This sort of movie comes out of a groundswell of feminism among the documentary arts crowd rather than Hollywood and is either an Indie phenomenon or influenced by that context. I don’t know enough to judge.

The formal criticism of this film when released was that a) it is self-indulgent and b) it promises more than it can deliver. The end sort of dwindles off as though it were too revolutionary to envision. I think both observations are true. Also, ironically, I think that politics -- feminist rather than religious and sociological -- tempts the writer into falling in love with reversals. The powerless and therefore virtuous little governess of “Jane Eyre” becomes the wily and potentially destructive outsider who does not hesitate to take revenge and then is able to make an escape to success. A cousin is “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” 1981, in which two centuries are played off against each other and two master actors deftly play aspects of themselves.

In such endeavors, casting is crucial. Minnie Driver cannot quite come up to Tom Wilkinson, an actor of such depth and integrity that by the time of his betrayal in a sprawling naked portrait, first meant as a token of love and later used as a means of revenge, our sympathy has largely gone to him in spite of the Jewess returning to pathetic scenes in her old home. The governess’ career as a recorder of the Jewish people in London seems only a footnote. Maybe she is too much wide-eyed ingenue. Maybe the dream sequences don’t quite bite hard enough on how much she loves her father and expects his understanding and eternal protection. (Why didn’t HE make some provision for his death, which everyone knew was possible? Why is that brother so useless?) Maybe the force and significance of being a co-experimenter is made trivial. Certainly Wilkinson’s character's re-appearance at the end to voluntarily have his photo taken seems tacked on and inexplicable. Wicked lovers always hope they’re loved in spite of betrayal.

The flesh-colored ivory depiction of Christ on the Cross the governess throws onto her bed is almost echoed later in the nude pose. Is it an allusion to the seductiveness (and ultimate crucifixion) of the Other? Would she have found the same predation with a Jewish man? A few scenes appear left over from old BBC productions or maybe “The Piano.” (Will the beach ever look the same after “The Piano?”) Can such a sensualist as Minnie’s character be safely left to guide a little girl and what does the puppet show mean about what she knows? Stripping the feckless boy at the end and his bit of agonized writhing on the beach is similarly unresolved. The boy’s fantasy is a necessary plot device since it motivates Wilkinson’s sudden abandonment of the imagined escape to a better life in a better place. (Paris. What did you think? California?) But simple intergenerational jealousy is too simple an explanation for the end of this governess’ fantasies of marrying an older, rich, accomplished man. She DOES overstep her bounds. She’s too much for this conventional reclusive family man.

All along I've been interested in the 19th century fascination with the beginnings of natural history, its technical exploration and finally its impact on society. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” echoes through here and not just through the camera obscura. We are interested to find out how others see us, but more than that, struck by how we see ourselves, especially in moral terms. It’s not just a matter of posturing in the mirror, which it sometimes seems that the governess is doing, but a question of what is currently being called reflexivity, calling into question what we are doing and -- hopefully -- searching for new ways. Now that we are confronting ourselves from outer space (Google earth) from citizen pockets (iPhones) from multiple ethnicity and the wars rooted in them (soldier vids) and a multitude of other visions, how should they change the way we live? Who is the governess now?

Sunday, May 23, 2010


In 1990 the first senior class of the new Heart Butte High School graduated. Of the eight grads four were male. A standout among the boys was Grinnell Day Chief.

Yesterday, 2010, was graduation day in Valier. There were twelve grads, three of them male. All three were named Cody! (Was that a movie star or a singer when these boys were born? Or a rodeo top hand?) One was Cody Day Chief, the son of Grinnell, who is now the manager of oil and gas leases for the Blackfeet Tribe, a multi-million dollar responsibility.

It all goes so fast and the stakes are so high!

This is the first graduation I’ve attended in Valier. The paper said it would be at 1PM but at that time, when I got there wearing my formal red spangly tractor hat, the only people in the gym were girls taping up signs saying, “congratulations.” If I’d have mattered, someone would have told me the time had been changed to 2PM. Small towns operate like congregations: word-of-mouth. There was a run-through of the DVD “slide show” presentation prepared by two of the grads: Malia Vandenbos and Chelsea Monroe. (The girls have romantic and ingenious first names: Samantha, Amber, Kala, Kristen, Carly, Chelsea, Mariah, Jerica, and Malia. Not a Jane or Judy in the bunch.) There was the inevitable search for enough extension cords.

When the families began to filter in, they found their assigned seats in the folding chairs on the gym floor. In the Hirst row (Kristen Hirst) was another of my former students from the Seventies in Browning. (Greg? Mike?) Kristen’s father was Charlie Hirst, the bus maintenance man when I was in Heart Butte. He was my next-door neighbor in the teacherage apartments and since we were almost the only ones there in summer, we got to be pretty good friends. He put my decrepit cars back in operation a couple of times. No charge. His shop was cleaner than some of the classrooms and even the superintendent snuck out to hit his coffee pot because he made better coffee than the lunchroom. Kirsten will be going to college in Missoula next fall.

Cody Day Chief is going into the military. (So did Grinnell.) If I heard correctly, all three boys are going that way except that Cody Henneman, tall and handsome, had good enough grades and scores to qualify for an Air Force grant that will pay his way through college, then take him in as an officer. There to present this award was a lieutenant colonel, five foot two and eyes of blue to match her uniform (skirt not pants, many ribbons).

There were absolute showers of scholarships and grants from families and businesses in town as well as universities and organizations. A hundred here, a thousand there, and the total added up to $85,000, we were told. Even Amber who is going to be a cosmetician got some financial aid for beauty school. This is a town that takes its children very seriously and also takes high school very seriously. In fact, you can live here your whole life and not be considered local unless one of your children graduates from this high school. It helps to be athletic, whether girl or boy.

The slide show was organized as a sequence of chapters about each student, showing baby photos up to the present and playing a sound track of the student’s fav song. Music is very important as a defining factor. Also, nicknames and the obligatory trip to Washington DC. The photos were mostly mugging, the same tongues-out, weird-sign-language signals that show up everywhere there is television. One set of prom photos, evidently professional, were exceptionally glamourous and funny, very sex-in-the-city. No fluffy net and pastels: dark prints, metallic fabric, slit skirts with legs out. Poses were girl-with-girl, no guys. Grades are never mentioned except for stars in the program next to the National Honor Society members, eight in all. No boys. Girls rule.

When it came to the traditional Salutatorian and Valedictorian speeches, Kala and Carley shared the honor, passing the mike back and forth between them. The speeches were not about going out into the world to conquer, but rather retrospective funny and cherished things, mostly about members of the class. There is an interesting bias in these kids against being big stars or “better” or being left out. They will find ways to share. They are a group -- even a gang. Okay, a clique.

When people say, “High school years are the best years of your life” and really mean it, they are likely not to be the people who left. Those who stay wrestle hard with the challenges of small town infrastructure and entwined families all jostling to survive. Jerry Sullivan, one of our prominent town council members, a big heavy-equipment operator with a strong mind and personality, has a tiny, pretty daughter graduating: Jerica, who says she’s going to medical school. Backhoes pay bills.

My favorite senior pic was that of my neighbor across the street, Kala, who posed in the midst of a pile of old tires, looking fresh-faced and funny. Her whole family has a wild sense of humor. For instance, her mother drives a sports SUV, bright yellow, with a license plate that says “Peel me!” Kala’s graduation party ended about 3AM. I know because the pickups parked in front of my house left about that time. Otherwise, there was no noise, because it’s fifty degrees, freezing in the nights, and our windows are closed. Kala is going to Carroll College where she will major in art. I’ve got to tell her about the Scriver Bursary award for studio materials. I have no control over it, but it’s there.

When it was time for actual ceremony, someone sat at the piano and began the familiar music. The seniors came in a side door and went up the center aisle under an arch of evergreen boughs. Girls were either clipping like ponies in unaccustomed high heels or slipping along in rhinestone flip-flops. Of course, boys wore manly ten-pound rubber athletic shoes. Kirsten's mortarboard was beaded. I forgot to check Cody's.

There was a receiving line afterwards, but I didn’t stay. I’m always afraid I’ll cry. I even felt like crying when I looked at Grinnell in his pretty pink shirt. I wish I’d found out which Hirst that was, Mike or Greg or ? for the formal newspaper story with photo.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010


“Wisdom from the Streets” by Kedric H. Cecil, Ph.D., is a local self-published book with universal value. It is the sort of thing we think publishers look for in order to develop a wide readership, though they don’t do that anymore. It’s hard to know whether being local is more valuable or less valuable. Is this book open to accusations of self-promotion, meant to help Cedric’s private practice, or is it a valuable contribution to counseling literature? Who is in a position to judge anyway?

Certainly this is another vivid tale. (Cecil reads from it aloud on You Tube.) Absolutely there are kids and parents out there who need to hear it. So what’s the prob? There might not be any.

Cecil is certified by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. His practice includes “Treatment of Depression; Anxiety and Panic disorders; Physical and Sexual abuse; Adults,children,and Adolescents’ Issues related to Dysfunctional Family Systems; Attachment Disorder in children and adolescents. . . . This therapist is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and works with individuals, couples, and families.” Academic: Ph.D., U.S. International University, Psychology, 1986; M.Ed., University of Portland, Counseling. Do you feel better now?

Choosing a counselor is not easy. You can look at all the credentials you like and still not really know anything, because it’s not about theory and professional peer-approval. In the end it’s about whether you are a good fit with this person. I don’t know a better way of finding out than reading a little book like this, which is about Cecil’s life and motivation. If you don’t like it, you’re not going to like Cecil as a counselor. But if the book makes you laugh and sigh, you might get along pretty well. My guess is that there are a LOT of people in Montana who could use a good sit-down with this guy.

The nub of the story is so common that we think of it as normal. Ill-advised or star-crossed marriage produces family chaos which causes the boys who are old enough to run away. Once on the streets, knowing nothing, they become prey for the dark parts of our society. Cecil was lucky in being big and a pretty good bluffer, but the same factors put him in deeper waters than his swimming ability. Once in a while the waves would wash him back home, now split between two parents.

Trying to force things to go back to happier times meant that he developed what is formulaically called “oppositional defiance disorder,” which is when a kid no longer trusts adults to know what is best and tries to control the situation himself. This can lead to intervention from the juvenile authorities, criminalization, and confinement. Somehow Cecil bounced back repeatedly enough for it to finally “take.” He also claims religious conversion but doesn’t describe it here. The University of Portland is a Catholic school, highly respected.

It’s no longer a secret that my co-writer Tim works with boys-at-risk, mostly in Paris, but his boys were in far more serious trouble than Cecil was. In order to survive they have been hustlers -- not the kind of scammers or beggars that Cecil describes on Seattle streets but frank whoring and hard drugs from a very young age. Against that background, I read Cecil’s description of his introduction to sex in quite a different way than some might. An older woman pulled him into her bed. She imprinted him for the rest of his life. Sex is intensely responsive to experience.

Maybe you think I’d brush that off as Cecil discovered many people did. “Hey, man! Great going! Wish that would happen to me!” Somehow we have the idea that if a boy is treated that way, it’s okay. If a man treated a girl that way, it would be a felony. For a long time Cecil didn’t realize he had been abused or that the abuse had twisted his emotions. Add to that the damage from family turmoil, and he had the kind of internal trouble that prevents growth or success, to say nothing of trustworthy relationships.

Somehow he was able to find friends, helpers and people who could explain what was going on, but it was one long haul and as dependent on his own energy and willingness to change as anything in the “system.” How do you find a professional credential endorsement for that?

The Paris boys might see in Cecil’s life on the streets nothing so dramatic as theirs, which might include war, trafficking (slavery), and grave physical and mental damage. But they might be more willing than others to see how underestimating the impact of family violence, lack of sexual education, warehousing pretending to be a deterrent, failure to address illness, and a concept of male behavior based on old cowboy movies watched on television in the middle of the night while in a drunken stupor, can destroy a life. Not only that but warp a whole society into destructive behavior, because even those suffering all of the above can get into positions of authority where they perpetuate both the problem and ineffective means of addressing it.

They would also recognize Cecil’s willingness to engage in inner dialogue between his street-kid self, which lives on in his head as a useful source of information, and his therapist self, which pays attention. Here’s one of the most useful quotes in the book:

“But, are self-awareness and openness to others ENOUGH to break the patterns of behavior a victim has engaged in as a result of the trauma that was inflicted upon him or her? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

“We have to deal with the addictive nature of the repetitive actions that we utilize to bring the trauma back upon ourselves. The truth is that we grow to love our self-debasement. Our self-destructive thoughts, plans and actions become our new identity because they promise to relieve our pain.”

Pain is a natural phenomenon meant to signal “don’t do that.” But trauma can reverse it, so that it says, “Do it again. This time the results might be different.” Besides, it’s too hard to imagine a different way. That’s why you need someone like Cecil to say, “Hey, try this!” and to offer assurance that if you can get through the pain, you will have long-term relief, not just buy a few more hours of coping.

Cecil doesn’t line up other people’s case histories: he tells us what he lived through in a wry, funny way that is deeply forgiving. Reading this book is a good idea, even if it’s not yourself who is in trouble.

Friday, May 21, 2010


In Montana there are two university sources for original public radio shows: one in Missoula for people west of the Rockies and one in Bozeman/Billings for people east of the Rockies. The ecologies, cultures, and lingo are different, but there is a bit of crossover. A Missoula show that has recently shown up on Yellowstone Public Radio is “The Write Question.” It’s about authors in the West, interviewed by Cherie Newton. I assume she catches these folks as they pass through Missoula for various reasons. She is on the staff at the Missoula station.

I have no idea what individual came up with the original category called “Montana writers.” Missoula was the original location of the famous “platform” though the publisher at Globe-Pequot, which is back east, once said all he had to do was put “Montana” on the cover of a book to make it sell. The Montana Festival of the Book, which happens in the fall in Missoula, exemplifies that platform (or did before they got to bouncing around with NPR back East) but it was a while before I realized that it is mercantile-based. Missoula is a college town, so I had the idea it was intellectual or analytical, but writing in Montana is clearly about sales -- saving the ranch. Having a “good paying job.” The Montana Festival of the Book is the literary equivalent of the CM Russell Museum auction in Great Falls. Both are organized by town, not gown. Nevertheless, the typical Montana writer is a college professor raised on a ranch. Theoretically.

At one of the earliest Montana Festivals of the book I met Mark Spragg, who is from Wyoming where he grew up on a dude ranch. He was just finishing a book promotion tour and was about as exhausted as a man can while remaining upright. It was a mingle-and-tingle evening part of the festival, back when it was still amazing to see other writers. Now that the Festival is all about consumers, I keep suggesting an informal potluck picnic for AUTHORS. Everyone nods and smiles. They’re busy. It won’t happen. Commerce rules. Next is family.

But I really like Mark Spragg. This was before his brush with Hollywood and Gentle Ben, the grizzly (or the latest of the tribe) in “An Unfinished Life,” and he was quite unspoiled about the whole writing thing. (Not to imply that he’s spoiled now.) So I was pleased to see that he was being interviewed on “The Write Question.” You can listen to it, too, thanks to the magic of the Internet. Go to The book is “Bone Fire” and the date of the post is May 19. Much of the interview is Mark reading from his book, which is a plus.

“Hear Spragg talk about writing and his new novel on The Write Question Thursday evening, May 20, at 6:30 (Yellowstone Public Radio) or 7:30 (Montana Public Radio). Or listen online.”

Newton runs a blog with the same title, “The Write Question: A radio program that explores the world of writing and publishing in the western United States.” Not “Montana writers.” I don’t know whether that’s a conscious choice to leave tightly defined regionalism, or whether it’s to allow people like Mark who is from Wyoming but pretty much the same ecosystem. I don’t know how far south she goes or whether she includes the coast. On the radio program there is a second participant (with an English accent) and the two simply remark on what they are reading every week, which seems pretty wide-ranging.

Susan Wickstrom, a former academic reviewing from Oregon, went with a regional emphasis, thus reinforcing the idea that writers are local. She says, “Wyoming is a serious place. It's home to Devils Tower, the Grand Tetons and Dick Cheney -- you can't get more serious than that. And according to "Bone Fire," Mark Spragg's latest novel, Wyoming is a place where serious people are scrabbling to find happiness in a barren emotional landscape.” This is the Sam Shepherd theory of Western writing.

“This web of interpersonal drama is strung together with a methamphetamine murder mystery, which seems sort of an afterthought. The real story here is people dealing with death, disease and relatives who seem like strangers. Modern life is seeping in from all sides, but it's still a grim place, where folks need to have a pretty good reason to smile.”

None of this was mentioned on Newton’s radio interview. Maybe regionalism is a monicker imposed from the outside rather than developing from the inside.

Wickstrom continues, “What is it about Wyoming that makes the humor so dry? Maybe it's the hard water. The jesting in "Bone Fire" is so deadpan, it's possible to count the laughs on one hand -- provided a finger hasn't been cut off in a ranching accident. But that's not to say the book is humorless -- there is a gentle hilarity that permeates.”

“The story moseys along as the characters muck through their trials and unhappiness. It seems Wyoming has the same mundane problems that occur anywhere in the world. But these somber Wyomingites have each other, and that stubborn loyalty is what makes it all bearable. Even more meaningful is their unbreakable tie with the land.”

“Spragg's Wyoming is quiet and beautiful and very real. He is a master at balancing minimalism with eloquent depth to paint a striking portrait of place . . . Reading "Bone Fire" is probably a lot like spending some time with the folks in Wyoming: A serious pleasure.”

And there you have it: the Montana writers “platform” except the label is changed to “Wyoming.” Simple.

The radio readings go to quite a different place, the mythic. Everyone is “spiritual” now. I’m mocking a bit, but it seems well-handled in the parts Mark read. The little girl in the movie has grown up and developed her Druid artist side by acquiring a huge literal bone pile in the middle of a meadow (antlers included -- typical in the West before antlers were worth money) and creating around it, as though it were a “bonfire,” a circle of figures also made of antlers. (Figures somewhat similar have been floating around in the art mags for decades.) This all ties in to “burning man” scapegoating, shamanism, and creativity as salvation. Mark Spragg in person reminds one of Ivan Doig, but his writing is nothing similar. Still, they hit the same platform: the land, the land, the land; the generations; tangles of bad errors; redemption through the spiritual; and nary an Indian.

But then, I base this judgment on one radio program. Listen for yourself and then we can all listen to the other shows and read the other books. The more discussion, the more growth in writers and the broader the platform. I want to know what Newton finds out about publishing. That may be the real “right question.” At least for authors. If you take a mercantile approach.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


As if there weren’t enough change in the world, the American Booksellers Association has changed it’s name to Book Expo America. The event is next week in NYC but the consternation has already begun over things like the arrangements for publishers and agents to slip away from the general public floor to confer with each other privately. The onslaught of Internet comment is underway. Barrus and maybe a few of the Cinematheque boys will be there.

When Tim Barrus talks about publishing -- I don’t mean the frontal assaults that so easily provoke agents, publishers, et al -- but the rational discussions like the one below, he is shrewd and clear-headed. Only a few gentle (docile) readers have the illusion that publishing is enough like what it used to be to even be called publishing.

Tim and I are co-writers, not so much collaborators as writers in dialogue. This is an arrangement that has continued for three years with hardly a break in daily communication. I’ve archived it all. (Some of it in a manuscript called “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs.”) It utterly refutes the image of Barrus the crazy-man and faker. We are not in agreement about everything -- if we were, why would we keep talking? But we are in total agreement about publishing.

Not on the surface where Tim rails against “books” (paper between covers) and wants to develop a whole new narrative and imagist world on video and any other media that can be made relevant. I’m seventy. I stick to books. But I’m also Bibfeldtian: I believe in the both/and. Why can’t we have both? In fact, why can’t there be other venues besides? This is where we reach consensus.

I’m interested in the spoken word. My eyes are failing. Tim suggests NPR as a kind of publisher of sound, but they have the same game plan as the Manhattan print monopolists. Controller authority in both places equals capital, capital (advertising) equals popularity (sales), and popularity is controlled by the authority which cynically believes in mediocrity and repetition as the sure way to make a profit. They know how to promote that, though even NPR is moving to contemporary music now, trying to overcome its reputation for the stuffy and predictable. (They’re still afraid to say fuck or shit.)

The real problem of publishing is the same one sweeping the human institutions of all nations who participated in WWII and have clung to the institutions invented at that time. Now we see them fail: banks, environments, fuel sources, hospitals, universities, highway systems, the military, and all kinds of social infrastructures we took for granted. Even, unthinkably, the Red Cross has been in trouble. Young people never heard of the earlier heroes, never learned the practices, don’t share the same goals -- let alone ethics. Look out at the audience at the opera, the symphony, the Broadway hits, the mainstream Sunday congregations, the senior faculties, the galleries and museums -- the great cultural venues. The heads are white.

Publishers, as we like to think they are, were guarantors of quality. So, supposedly, were the doctoral committees who reviewed the Ph.D. theses, the medical review boards who certified best practice, the professional journals that peer-reviewed new meds, and the Supreme Court. All have been bought out -- if not by money, by status and prestige. There are a million little sliders of the truth. If the government is forbidden to kill civilians, out-source it to Blackwater; if the government is forbidden to torture, call it “extraordinary rendition” in a foreign country.

Publishers like to blame authors and authors like to blame agents and agents like to blame readers. That’s a loser’s game. Time to put all the cards out there and invent a new game. Not just on-line poker or computerized chess, but a human paradigm shift.

What’s really at stake is ideas. Ideas are likely to come from minorities. Minorities exist in plenitude right in the middle of majorities. They are not just defined by nations or races, but also by artists and explorers and -- most of all -- the marginalized and stigmatized. Tim and I often outrage each other -- you might say we are outragialists. It’s our metier and our medium. Packed with ideas. Tim plays the game with the Big Boys and Big Girls, but I’ve always been local. (I’m learning.) To outrage people it’s only necessary to tell them the truth they don’t want to hear.

Tim and I could easily break contact with each other. I’m not saying “outrage” in any superficial sense. We truly do horrify each other on occasion. But we don’t break contact. (Publishers and agents do that.) Instead we learn. The horrifying and unthinkable is sometimes exactly the most fertile and creative new idea. It just contradicts who we think we are.

Gays in the military. Female Roman Catholic priests. Single mothers. Gay married couples. Legal marijuana. Legitimate sex business. Unified continental currency. A black president. Books with unconventional content. Books that are electronic. Books that are videos. Books that aren’t even called books.

The scientists tell us that sight is not something located in the eyes but in the brain. (I don’t always recognize people now -- am I having small strokes?) Sex is not located in the reproductive apparatus but in the brain. Reading is not located in the eyes, the fingers, the ears or anywhere else but the brain.

It would be great if publishing were also a function of the brain again, a thinking person’s profession. Not a profiteers’, not just a capitalists’, not a function of a dominating class. I think there might be profit in it.



John F. Blair (a publisher) says... Yes, but... Kindle.

One more time...

I totally agree that a self-published Kindle book could be the most effective way to go for some writers. Especially the genre writer like McQuestion who is also selling film rights. Amazon doesn't make it impossible to do. But you won't appear on any of their "lists" that are constructed to get the reader's attention unless you've already broken into the mainstream mold which is a marketing paradigm. McQuestion is publishing material that can be readily marketed exactly like anything else that old media knows how to market. Build the box and put the writing in it. Or rather, mold the writing to the box.

This marginalizes writers who work outside that mold because their ideas simply cannot fit the box.

I cannot even imagine how a smaller publisher hangs on. Having been an editor in both magazines and books; having to predict what the price of paper alone will be in six months turns you into a fortune-teller with a crystal ball, and it's easy to be just plain wrong. Although, I've never seen the price of paper go down. The price of paper is going to become ephemeral, and not simply because of digital evolution, but because the carbon footprint will be assessed as worthy of extraordinary taxation, and it's coming. The writing is on the wall. The cap and trade legislation that doesn't render publishing as existing in a vacuum is already in legislative committee.

No one in publishing is talking about this because the business is almost done with a corporate fire extinguisher. You're putting out fires. Not planning for the future. And this problem isn't limited to just tree-and-ink publishers. If you take a look at what the digital experts are doing with their conferences and panels, you will find a focus TOTALLY limited to marketing where, in fact, not a single writer or journalist either attends or organizes. I can assure you that not one of the people involved in the future of digital marketing has a clue as to what is going on in legislative committees. They, too, will find themselves armed with fire extinguishers. When I deal with these people they look at me like I am speaking in Mongolian dialect. Become involved at the legislative level. Am I insane. They want Kindle sales figures.

The big corporate publishers are going to find themselves locked into a quid pro quo relationship with the big literary agencies like ICM to an extent that will make their relationships today seem like the epitome of independence. In fact, the big literary agencies today represent the interest of the publisher but it's not the kind of contractual oxymoron it's about to become. Why. Because the big literary agencies are also the big talent/film agencies, and they DO have an awareness of, and are directly involved in how that legislation is written. How do they do this. Easy. They hire lobbyists. What does this mean for the writer. It means he's going to be locked out of digital publishing unless he has an agent who can handle not only the digital contract (there will be no standard contract) but also the publisher. The agent won't be a liaison. He'll be directly involved in every aspect of the book including the writing of it. It is already common (it happened to me) for the agents at ICM, CAA, WM, to dictate what the "next work" will be. NOT the publisher. And NOT the writer. We've been there for some time.

When I say stranglehold, I mean stranglehold. Because this is where the money is.

To wit: Publishers are experimenting with the paradigm of the VOOK. The book trailer is not a new idea. I run the largest VOOK group on Facebook, and it could easily be turned into a full-time job.

Every major publisher has a new digital unit. This IS a new idea. The relationship (in terms of who will have the power to decide what gets published) between the publicist (who currently holds the power but not for long) and the web geek on the committee has not been resolved. The days of the publicist calling Courtney Lizt at Charlie Rose are over. The Rolodex is dead. The geek will win (the publicist won't even be able to speak the language). The editor won't even be invited to the table. The days of the editor deciding what the books will look like will be a distant memory. At the moment, they're still at the table, but just barely. They have lost weight, gravity, ground, and importance. They're dinosaurs. The real power is going to exist between the web geek and the agent. As soon as this gets institutionalized, the "little writer" is of no consideration whatsoever. Don't even bother.

This is how fast it's happening. A few weeks ago, the major publishers were reorganizing. Heads have rolled. But this is standard. They want to make sure this is done before the ABA. [BEA] Writers were even talking to one another about the IDEA of submitting video content to augment manuscripts. This will seem odd, but the analogy is to the speaking/reading gig. To say that the writer should just write is patently absurd. The writer as travel agent has existed for some time. The writer as speaker, too. Now, it's Chistopher Rice as professional video star. Who can compete with Hollywood film production values.

No one.

After the first of the year, the paradigm was set in stone. No video content submission from a writer can be even entertained. It won't get looked at.

Especially by the new video units.

The power struggle for that job is over. Last fall, agents were saying things like: "This video has too many jump cuts. The clips need more more transitions to tell the story."

This is a distant cry from let's revise chapter two.

Now, they're saying: "The publisher will make the video, and it will be advertising."

Because that is how the publishers SEE the idea of video augmenting writing.

How it gets to I-Pad is up to the geek. I saw Carolyn Reidy from SS give Steve Jobs the most enthusiastic hug I have ever seen in my entire life. I have never seen a publisher hug anyone. But she was truly thrilled. Because they see Jobs as saving them. The deals are being negotiated as I am writing this. Literally.

And they're not deals being negotiated with writers.

Okay, so it was almost impossible to get a manuscript published. Outsiders still talk about tweaking this and that and this and that. I guess it gives them something to do. Then it was going to be writing connected to the video. That's done. They've decided the video will be an ad. To wit: Bethenny Frankel's, The Skinny Girl Rules on YouTube developed by Simon and Schyster I mean Schuster's new video unit developed by Mark Gompertz and Ellen Krieger. Bethenny Frankel gets on YouTube and tells the females of today -- How to Snag a Man.

This is vintage 1950. But the publishers are timid. They're afraid. So they are reaching for what has sold before.

How to. Diet books. How to snag a man. It's pathetic and for the first time in a while I note that even the average reader is beginning to go: WTF.

Forget bookstore owners. They're not in this picture.

What if a writer doesn't want his work broken up by a video advertisement. Well, what's wrong with him they do it on television all the time.

Getting your book on Kindle is the least of it. Who cares. Kindle is going to change.

So is Lulu.

They ABHOR the idea of video (I'm not defending it, I'm just saying it's here) but they abhor losing money more than they abhor video and if they are going to be forced to go to that marketing paradigm, they want to control it.

My Bishop to your Pawn. The pieces move. It's the same chess game. It used to be rigged, but now the rigging has gone from the indifferent brick wall to the person doing the rejection sits in an office at Endeavor in Beverly Hills so be prepared to be screamed at on the phone. Where does that leave the little writer (with new ideas which are cute they just don't mean anything) and the smaller publisher.

A word they HATE looking at.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010


The Great Falls Tribune on May 18 made a “modest proposal” just before a vote by the city council.

“Here’s a creative solution to a nagging problem: Stop rounding up and sheltering lost, runaway and abandoned dogs and cats in Great Falls.

“City officials have been wringing their hands for months about whether to enter into a partnership with the Animal Foundation to provide an adequate place for such animals to wind up.

“But where does it say that governments should provide this service?

“The easiest -- and surely the cheapest -- solution might just to be to turn their backs on the whole deal.

“Think about it. Roving packs of dogs and thousands of feral cats around town could actually solve a few other problems -- for example, mice, rats and small children running loose around the city could be a thing of the past.

“Does your neighbor have noisy chickens in the backyard? Not for long!

“If the furry critters get out of control -- or if they get rabies -- then the police could just shoot ‘em. Tidy.

“Great Falls would become the libertarian poster child of the West.

“Our motto could be: “We don’t need no stinkin’ animal shelter in Great Falls.

“Oh, wait, we already have a stinkin’ animal shelter in Great Falls.

“So maybe the motto could be: “Great Falls -- where even the dogs are free.”

So what did the council do?

Cancel the partnership.

This is part of a whole shift in mentality perhaps caused by the child-raising practices (or parent-controlling practices) of the three year old: if you don’t want to do something, pitch a fit. Right now the fit being pitched is spending money on frills, defined in varying ways. In fact, one could make a case that this sudden thrift obsession has some whiplash relationship to the previous wave of insisting that nothing is too good for our little furry pals, the pets. It’s not that the continuum of opinion is a bell curve with most people in the middle and a few outliers on each end -- it’s a dumbbell curve with everyone out on the two ends and a thin strand of reason in the middle.

What would happen if reasonable people were thinking through this issue? First they could make a list of problems. Actual harm to animals and people, like dogs in traffic, horses starved to death, cats with rabies. Then they could keep a lot of statistics. Before they could begin to do that, they would need to come up with some definitions, probably including some new ones and probably requiring some research. For instance, I don’t know of any category more useless than stray dogs. It only means unconfined dogs with no accompanying human, but they might be escaped pets, feral dogs, lost dogs, abandoned dogs -- each of which has its own set of causes and cures.

Then they could think about what citizens could do without assistance: spay/neuter pets, confine unaccompanied dogs for pickup or transport them, fence yards, walk dogs on leashes, research dogs before acquiring one, maintain shots and provide care for injuries, learn to do proper training to prevent noise and lack of sanitation, and feed their animals properly.

Thinking through what is expected of shelters is another important step. One school of thought is that any old barn will do since the dogs are unwanted and can’t possibly belong to nice people. They’re going to be euthanized anyway. At the other extreme is the shelter as a kind of playground with a nice facade, cheerful people in smocks who do pet match-making to offer cute little puppies, and school classes who come to “see” the animals in order to learn about kindness.

If I were making a pitch for a shelter, I would put a set of graphs somewhere obvious that showed: number of dogs currently in the shelter, number quarantined for observation because of biting, number euthanized for injuries or disease, number of loose animals impounded by animal officers, number impounded by police officers arresting people accompanied by animals or coroners responding to a citizen death or taking into custody combatants at staged dogfights, number of dogs impounded with licenses and therefore returned to known owners, and number of animals impounded because of cruelty and animal hoarding -- therefore being held pending court action -- and number of dogs euthanized. (Not euthanizing dogs soon creates animal hoarding perpetrated by the government agency charged with preventing such situations.)

An animal shelter is NOT the answer to animal control problems nor is it a solution to humane issues. It is a place to keep animals. But in many minds, probably because a shelter is something concrete (sic) and requiring a budget, the three things get conflated.

There is no way the animal control function can be dropped without causing a public outcry. If there is no specialized crew of responders, the police and sheriff will end up taking time to address problems, but with no way to transport animals and no place to take them to. If animals are in traffic, injured, and taken to veterinarians with no way of paying for them, the veterinarians cannot be expected to donate their resources: they’re running a business. If animals are lying dead in the street, the street workers will have to collect them. If these situations are not addressed by animal control, citizens will INSIST that someone else do them.

A humane society can be run out of a home office or a P.O. box, but as soon as it begins to respond to specific situations, often tragically laden with emotion, they will need to have a shelter or else press members into using their homes. The trouble in large part is that citizens want a charity to take care of governmental functions. There is a constant demand for volunteers to address drug problems, poverty problems, education problems, disease problems, and rehabilitation problems. Save money. Let the churches do it.

Luckily, many people are generous, but when the economy is bad, it’s not just money that’s short. Time and sympathy are also in short supply while people struggle to keep their own households afloat. This animal shelter problem is only the leading edge of a tendency to withdraw support from everything that doesn’t make money or doesn’t benefit those individuals who have the power -- the ones protecting their own interests.

Why transport animals to the shelter to kill them? Why not just euthanize them in the streets as they are caught? Shooting guns is much too risky. Maybe a truck with a gas chamber on the back. It’s only a matter of time before someone realizes that humans are also animals. It’s not unthinkable. No papers? Get in the back. It’s been done before. it’s rational. It’s also Evil. A loss of civilization.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I’m reading Linda Karell’s book, “Writing Together/Writing Apart,” about collaborations in Western American Literature. This “Western” category makes the question of the value of collaboration much sharper (in the sense of knife, not wit) because there is nothing that will damn and confine a writer more than being “regional” or “local,” unless it’s collaborating. Although much of the time she seems to be talking more about reconciliation than collaboration, particularly reconciliation between a West that “was” (maybe) and persists awkwardly in the lives of the generation that must come to terms with the Post-WWII West.

That’s my generation, just ahead of the boomers. I’m about the same age as many of the writers Karell is considering. In fact, I know some of them glancingly which makes things even more awkward. Worse, I know the territory. Worse still, I’m one of those writers who has never been recognized. They’re in various places around Montana, scribbling away almost secretly but the people who control publicity ignore them. I’ve only been defined as “Bob Scriver’s wife.” Holy feminism!! I had an interesting ally: James Welch, Jr. James Welch, Sr., was Bob Scriver’s earliest best friend. Another friend not recognized here is Sid Larson, Jimmie’s cousin. Talk about breaching the generations. Talk about stumbling into history. Talk about crossing the rez line. (No, Karell doesn’t talk about those things. She’s into all that theory stuff.) Both Jimmies are dead, dammit. Sid is in Iowa, last I heard.

Karell’s first chapter about collaborators discusses the Erdrich/Dorris writing marriage, which was an intense and romantic collaboration. Everyone loved the idea. They were so good-looking and presented such a unified front! The train wreck at the end seemed to contradict all that had come before, which hooked us even harder. Still, they were arguably the most successful of the Native American Renaissance writers. Except maybe James Welch Jr. (Oh, Sherman, go away! You’ve always defined yourself as the “young upstart” -- even now, at forty, you’re writing YA fiction!)

The second collaboration considered is a little trickier since it is among parts within the same woman -- three interior personas of Mary Austin. Hmm. I got confused, partly because that’s MY name, too. Partly because this is heavily theoretical.

The third collaboration is conventional NA politics: “Cogewea” -- an authentic Indian woman writing sentimental novels according to a white pattern -- revised, augmented, contradicted and validated by a white man, McWhorter, who sometimes uses his “Indian” name.

The fourth collaborators are three memoir writers: Ivan Doig, Mary Clearman Blew, and William Kittredge, who are not collaborating with each other, but with letters from their pasts. These are three people I’ve met. Kittredge’s Oregon home ranch was near that of the woman my cousin married. Doig graduated from high school here in Valier. We went to NU together. Etc. We have somewhat the same DNA: Scots, introverted, word-drunk, rufous. It has played out quite differently. (If only I could have had a wife instead of being one.) But also his major was journalism; mine was theatre. He didn’t like living here; I do. The irony is that no one will buy his books unless he writes about here. (Oh, and no black people please. He rarely writes about Indians and that’s a good thing.)

The last chapter is about the outright and vehement charge of plagiarism against Wallace Stegner, one of the most revered and gallant of Western writers (among male readers), who made a novel of the letters of Mary Horton Foote, herself a major writer and artist. Well, HE didn’t think she was so major. He thought she was so minor that no one would really notice that he was rewriting her life, adding rather unsavory details. Karell does some very interesting ducking and dodging about layers of meaning since Stegner was writing a book, using Foote’s letters, about a novelist who is supposedly writing a book using his grandmother’s letters. Stegner is a special interest of mine, partly because of Sharon Butala who saved his boyhood home in Eastend. Like Doig, Stegner was glad to shake the dust from off his feet. Courtly and patronizing, he was totally earnest and well-meaning.

I think he put all these layers in his book because he was really writing about his mother and father. I think most of the novels he wrote were attempts to come to terms with his heart-deep problem of resolving the contrast between his genteel mother and his renegade father, which handily reflected the opposition between the Victorian East and the actual and brutal West. A.B. Guthrie, Jr. had the same sort of conjugal knot to figure out but he was a rougher character with a different angle on history. The third man I would put in this group, were I writing a book of comparison, would be Walter von Tilberg Clark, who like Stegner found civilization in Salt Lake City, wearing tennis whites, the sort of elevated society that lady mothers really approve. Clark's son worked in the Montana Historical Society library.

Now I’m going back to the Erdrich/Dorris chapter. I just watched the “Georgia O’Keeffe” movie that was filmed in 2009 with Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons about O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’ struggling relationship, which was what you might call an unreconciled collaboration. The puzzle I come back to again and again, my heart-puzzle, is the trade-off between one’s individual talents and the necessity of accommodating another person of equal intensity and gifts, but conflicting goals and behavior. I don’t think I’m the only one. This chapter does little more than lay out the public facts of whatever it was that happened between Erdrich and Dorris.

Erdrich read at Powells just after Dorris’ death. Her beautiful face was utterly ravaged with grief. It is a complication to know too much about a writer’s personal life or even to have sat at a reading, watching their faces and watching the faces of their spouses or even their children. I attended two memorials for Stegner, one for Jim Welch Jr., the graveside of Jim Welch Sr, a feschtshrift for Guthrie in Choteau at which Blew read the beginnings of the book that Karell describes as “collaboration” with the writings of her grandfather, his scribbles in pencil on wrappers and envelopes, sitting in a buggy by moonlight. Reading a book like Karell’s takes a lot of reconciliation with impressions of the real people. I value classroom diagrams and theories, but in the end it is the scribbling that counts.