Wars and Books and Workshop Tales

In which Odin discusses his writing at some length, and waxes morose about the nature of war.

Wars and Books and Workshop Tales
Some AI-gen magic

I encountered a Wilfred Owen poem when leafing through a book today, and I was suddenly struck by my love for his poetry. I encountered his work almost a decade ago, now, and every time I read any of his pieces I'm immediately recaptured by his command of language, rhythm, and metaphor.

Owen was a WWI-era poet who did most of his most famous writing in and around the bloody trenches of that terrible war. He was killed just one week before armistice was declared. In the story of his life, I am reminded of the anarchist creed: It is the doom of the beast we call "Nation" to send its common folk to war. I wonder how ingrained this habit is, as I look at the world today and see the vitriolic banners sprouting once again.

The Send-Off
By Wilfred Owen

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

There we are: shivers down the spine. My favorite line is "Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray As men's are, dead." You can just imagine the lines of young men, jackets adorned with the "wreath and spray" of military pomp, heading toward their inevitable graves.

I've been thinking a lot about war and death lately, partially because of the continuing war in Ukraine, and partly because of the terrorism being inflicted upon Palestine. There seem to sometimes be too many horrors at work in this world to keep track: too many children's bodies, and too many people too quick to react out of self-righteous certainty.

I see opinions creeping across the social landscape like termites through the foundation of the world: apologists for chauvinism and genocide who make excuses by the bushel. War-hawks crying havoc with delighted fire in their eyes. And I see perpetual pacifists ignoring harsh realities: those who cannot defend themselves must, at some point, be defended lest the guilt of their decease pass to those who stood willfully by.

No easy answers. No good choices.

But too many bodies.

Too many little bodies blown to pieces.

Too many sons and daughters held in grieving arms.


Perhaps I'm feeling extra maudlin today because I just finished the 5th book in that series that I mentioned I was reading: The Magic Men Mysteries. It was, by far, one of the worst collapses, of an otherwise stellar series, that I have ever witnessed. It took every strength and warped it, like steel being rent by violent heat, leaving worthless slag, the ruined husk of meaning. Characters became incoherently idiotic and relationships established for numerous books were perverted into their worst forms. Even the prose itself seemed to take a dive, as if trying to commit to the depths any final shred of enjoyment from its pages that might have been had.

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I've seen this sort of thing appear in series before, sometimes when a writer has terrible experiences in their life, or when they reach a certain point in later life where they grow tired of the worlds they've devised. But this one shocked me a bit, and it is made all the more depressing by the fact that I really loved the rest of the series.

Oh well. I suppose that, like the final season of Castle, I shall ignore the existence of this tosh and move on to greener pastures. I can keep the light of those earlier works alive, I think. If only because they were so well-formed, so delightful, so endearing and filled with admirable qualities. I could see myself re-reading them in the future to reacquaint myself with Max, Edgar, Emma, and the Great Diablo, who will greet me like old friends.

But the series after the 4th book is dead to me now. A wasteland wantonly scoured by some unseen maniacal hand.

Vintage image of a smiling white housewife throwing a book over her shoulder.

This week has seen a wonderful return to my own writing, at least. I completed my reverse-outline and, from that, drafted a new complete outline of my novel, with all the new chapters I need to make it work, and a far better plot to build its third act from. There are, I suspect, many oodles of hours ahead of me drafting those chapters, but it feels so good to be on my way with it again.

The last few months continued last year's trend of being relatively terrible for Odin the writer. While I made headway in various areas of my craft, most of my time was taken up with work for the library, or work for my MLIS degree. There have been some other major changes as well, which I promise to share in due course (all lovely. honestly, just workload-intensive). All of this conspired to take me away from my writing.

It feels good to be back.

I think the most important thing we can do in life is to persist at our passions. Not for fame and money, but simply because what we're doing is what fulfills our experience of being alive. There doesn't need to be any reason to create art other than that.

Not that I'd balk at a deal to write TV series or something. Sign me up, baby.

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The long weekend has offered me a helping hand as well, when it comes to my writing. This, in the form of an alumni workshop session from my alma mater, Stonecoast. I forget, sometimes, how wonderful those residencies in Maine were. I missed the last two of them due to Covid-19, and it wrenches my heart a bit that I've never been able to make it back for any of the summer intensives. I look forward to the day when I can return, to see old friends in person, and to immerse myself in that incredible literary atmosphere once more.

That said, the community I made from Stonecoast has supported me in so many ways over the years. Some of my best friends were made through that program. I found confidence in myself as an author and as a person through the workshops, community, and the residency in Ireland. If you're looking for a creative writing MFA, it's got my vote.

This alumni workshop group is a potent way of reinvigorating my work, and ensuring that I am continuing to grow as a writer and person, even though I have my degree.

I liken it a bit to acting.

In Britain there's long been the idea within professional acting schools that, once you have your degree, you're good to go: done with the training period. But American schools have always maintained a growth mindset: the idea that one is always learning, applying, and changing throughout life.

A writer can too easily become complacent, married to a false image of themselves. A good community of peers can help you avoid that fate.

I've heard a lot of writers, especially older ones, say something like: "I don't share my work with anyone."

Personally, I think that's the voice of fear.

You need to share your work in order to improve. Opening yourself to a community, letting people into your sacrosanct artistic halls, will actually allow your work to improve. If, that is, you can actually be humble enough to hold the critiques as they arrive. Holding doesn't mean accepting, mind. We should not allow others to dictate our work. But we must be open to the creative process of a passionate sharing.

For my part, I feel so lucky to have a group of peers that are all so uniformly excellent. Not only is their work a wonderful treat to read, but their ability to become fueled by constructive critiques, to find joyful excitement in the experience of asking questions, is simply bliss. That shared experience is the best remedy for artistic blues that I can imagine, and I know that my own writing will only continue to improve because of it.

Well, alright, this week's newsletter has been quite the wordy one, but it's also been a treat to share so much with you all.

Happy Martin Luther King Day and go easy, friends. Or, if you can't go easy, then go as easy as you can.


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