Met a young lady recently who endeavors to be a writer. With a nod to the late great Danilo Kish, I had a bit of advice for her… 

  1. Find tragedy in fortune and fortune in the tragic.
  2. Lead your readers to great thoughts, then gleefully shove them off the cliff to that thought.
  3. Believe in ultimate truths and them question them.
  4. Get really cool glasses and search for the perfect chair.
  5. Be a benevolent tyrant of syntax.
  6. Be fearless. Fearlessness for the writer comes only from living in truth. Caution, it is not a natural human quality, but you are a writer so no one ever accused you of being human!
  7. Language is malleable and infinite with possibility, just as clay is to the sculptor. You are a sculptor.
  8. Your literary sculptures are a communal compromise between the words you choose and how your audience interprets your words.
  9. Seek to eliminate any interpretation of your words, even though you will almost always fail in that endeavor.
  10. Failure makes you a better writer.
  11. Writing is community.
  12. I don’t eat fish, they swim in their toilet and it is very rude to watch someone eat you, which is why I don’t associate with cannibals.
  13. Writing is music and rhythm. You must discover  whether you write like Beethoven, Coltrane or Zeppelin.
  14. Find your own voice.
  15. Writer’s block is for the unimaginative and those with nothing to say.
  16. No writer was ever respected for adhering strictly to the rules, though a fair number did get published.
  17. Identify with humanity instead of politics, reason over religion, truth over law and compassion over justice.
  18. My feet hurt. I’m glad to be seated. Sit down when you write, it’s better for your feet.
  19. Write constantly.
  20. Always be an editor instead of a censor.
  21. Writing is rebellion. If your family supports your writing you are left with little choice; you’ll have to shave your head and get the tattoo.
  22. There is no writing without pain. half the trick to being a really good writer is in surviving life’s pain long enough to write about it..
  23. Prefer places in which you are a minority.  The perspectives are richer, the humility far more valuable and the music is surprisingly easy to dance to!
  24. I generally suck at all the things I have an expert opinion on, which is why I became a writer.
  25. You may leave home without money, water or a passport, but never leave home without at least two good pens and something to write on.
  26. If you are 11 years old or younger, start looking for a literary agent now, so that you may find one by the time you are forty.
  27. No one writes well before they are 40, but everyone writes well if they wish to.
  28. Wine is an elixir to honesty. Too much wine confuses bitterness with honesty. I prefer beer.
  29. Never let anyone tell you that you should speak with just one voice, it is rude to all the other voices in your head!
  30. Every word has been written ten billion times before. Every word you write is a new and undiscovered country.
  31. Never wear a hat when you write. I don’t know why, just don’t do it.
  32. Die upon every page, for your life as a writer depends upon it.
  33. Don’t take anything too seriously. Seriousness is a lie. Comedy and humor are the writer’s best tools for deconstructing the world.
  34. Taste colors. Feel the texture of sound. Measure the tempo of the human heart in love, in fear, at death. Breathe in the scent of every emotion. Swim in the cool deep current of truth. Grasp the sunset and measure its weight in your hands. Ruminate over the absurdity of forever.
  35. Always write through the character’s eyes rather than your own.
  36. As a writer you are never alone, worlds and characters and conversations fill the air around you.
  37. Words have power. You are powerless without your words. You are your words.
  38. Cherish solitude and loneliness, which are imperative to the act of writing well.
  39. You are a character in everyone else’s novel. Realize that every word you write is not for you, but they definitely reveal everything about you.
  40. Everyday truths are self evident. Great truths are massaged from random thoughts, but ultimate truths are your Holy Grail

Literature as Future history and the Power of Fiction.

In 1999 I began work on my very first novel. It took me four years to complete; a 93,000 word epic about 6 friends coming of age in a small French town I’d fallen in love with many years before. I edited the book now and again, but overall it seemed far too intimate to do anything with. I printed a copy and put it on a shelf. “A Perfect Place,” takes place years from now, the world at war with America. a virulent nationalist fervor, led by a particular demagogue and championed by a criminal sweeps through town, observed by a dying university professor who believes all human history can be described and predicted using the template of the French Revolution. Dusting off the novel late last night I was stunned at how closely I described what is happening to our nation, and what may lay ahead. In this excerpt two of the characters are faced with going off to war:

He was waiting for Antonio and David. Rather he was waiting for Antonio and having doubts whether David would actually show after the other day. The note they left at his door went unanswered, but David had always been a little flighty in Bastien’s opinion, so anything was likely to happen. Bastien, however, was not placing too many hopes on David showing.

Antonio arrived first, climbing up through the skylight, waving when he saw Bastien. He scooted onto the ledge beside Bastien, and asked where David was. Bastien only shrugged, watching the curious characters in the alley below. Antonio looked as well, the bottoms of his feet tingling as they dangled so high above the ground.

“What’s the show today?”

“Josephine Baker.”

“Oo-la-la. Even I would tune out for her.”

“Why, like to borrow one her dresses?” Bastien grinned. Antonio was suddenly flustered, searching for something to say. Bastien patted his leg before Antonio could get the words out. “Good comeback. I’m only just kidding.”

“Are you always going to torture me with that?”

“You kissed me, Goddamnit.”


“And you said you loved me!”

“I, uh…” Antonio stammered.

Bastien could see that his friend was hurt and embarrassed. He threw an arm around Antonio’s shoulders. “I love you too, man.”

“You do?”

“Sure, for all the years we’ve been friends. You’re my best friend in the whole world, man. Even if you are a queer bird.”

“I didn’t say I was queer.”

“Well, someone who kisses other boys might want to start asking some questions, don’t you think?”

“Just confused.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out, right. Not important though, right now we have bigger things to worry about.”

Of course he was talking about the war. They were quiet for a moment, that new worry creeping into their thoughts. Antonio sighed, looked out across the hazy jumble of rooftops and power lines, catching only a glimpse of the greenish-brown river beyond.

“Ever wonder about dying?” he asked.

“Only about dying here.”

“Here or anywhere?”

“Anywhere but here.”


“Don’t think about it. It will just make you sick.”

“How is that possible? Maybe we will be killed or crippled, come back as hopeless as these others.” Antonio motioned to a table of veterans throwing catcalls at Bastien’s blushing Sister.

“Maybe you’ll get cancer tomorrow.”


“You could get hit by lightening, or drown in the river. Do you worry about those things too?”

“I worry about things you cannot even imagine, my friend.”

“Do you worry that I will throw you from this roof, if you don’t shut up?”

“I am now,” he grinned.

“Look there’s a rat,” Bastien pointed out the furry creature scurrying through the tables. An elderly man and wife saw it and smiled at one another. Both boys could see the holo-tech modules in their ears.

“I bet the holo-tech program will make that old couple there think that it’s an adorable poodle.”

“Disgusting. I’d rather have a rat.”

“A rat?”

“They know how to fight, how to survive. With a rat you know he is out for himself. Nobody will mess with him unless he wants a real fight. That’s who you get behind, protect his ass. In the war, I intend to be a rat.”

“I’ll be behind you, Little rat,” Antonio nudged with his shoulder.

Bastien looked at him for a long moment, judging him in a way that almost made him want to retreat for it. Instead, he rose to meet it, felt himself becoming a man.

“I know you will. And yes, I do think about dying.”

Antonio thought to say something, to ask him, but the effort just seemed too small. It was enough that Bastien was thinking about death that made Antonio not feel so alone any longer.

“And David?” Antonio asked.

Bastien could only shake his head.

“I went by his flat earlier,” he said. “The note was gone.”

“Maybe he saw it?”

“I spoke with his crazy mother. Well, spoke at her while she stared at me like I was speaking English or something.”

“Will we be the three Musketeers?”

“He will not come with us,” Bastien said recalling their last time at the chateau.

“I had that impression, too.”

“David is on another road, perhaps more deadly than ours, and certainly more dangerous for the soul.”

Antonio nodded in reluctant agreement, looked admiringly at his friend. Bastien pretended not to notice, looked off across the town. He tried to imagine the two of them at war, wondered what it would be like for each of them, but could not quite form proper thoughts. The war was too real now to ponder, to imagine themselves in the news images from the frontlines, or to think that they could soon end up like those wretched souls in the Hotel des Invalides, or upon that hill at St-Cirq Lapopie. It came to them as this undefined monolithic thing, something which could neither be understood or reckoned with, only faced as confidently as their untested hearts could manage.

A Mystery of Languages Solved?

After more than two decades studying and travelling in the Balkans there was one recurring question. I can honestly say that I had the same vexing conversation with dozens of people throughout the former Yugoslavia over the years, from acquaintances at cafes to various professors, intellectuals, artists, historians and a philosopher or two. Is it possible that the answer lay right under our noses, or more specifically, under our tongues?

For all of my Slavic friends, family and acquaintances: I have long wondered where the Serbo-Croatian and overall Slavic languages designation for German and Germany come from, Nemački, Nemačka, respectively in Serbo-Croatian. travel back in time to the 3rd through the 6th Centuries AD when Slavic tribes migrating into Europe came into fuller contact and competition with Germanic tribes whose language they could not understand. The S-C word for mute is Nem or Nemy. Possibly the term was a bit of a perjorative by Slavic nations as they came into contact with Germanic tribes. It is the best theory to the origin of the word whose derivations extend to the Hungarian német, who arrived in Europe around the time of the Slavs, the Turkish, Nemçe and Almanca, who borrowed from the Bosnian/Serbian in the 12th and 13th centuries as the Ottoman Empire occupied souther Europe to the gates of Vienna.


We are storms and banks and reeds

Whipped by the wind, we rise to bluster and succumb to our own floods

We are fear and desperation and pointlessness

Cold, we huddle for fear of being forgotten, yet that is our fate.

We are hope and need and desire

Dragged from our homes, Our cries lost to the tumult of the world

We are tragedy and sickness and alone.

And if there is any redemption left to us it lies in the sacrifice of love

                                                                                       WC Turck

Liberal Literature

Preparing for my first trip to the Balkans in 1992 as the siege of Sarajevo was beginning, I consumed what little Yugoslav and Balkan literature was available at the time. It gave me a decided advantage over journalists. At the end of the war I was able to immerse myself more fully in in literature from the former-Yugoslavia. One of those was perhaps the most overlooked. under appreciated and misunderstood writers, at least outside of what once constituted Yugoslavia; the late Mesa Selimovich (Pronounced: Mesha Selimovich).

This piece isn’t really about Selimovich (26 April 1910 – 11 July 1982), who wrote seminal and iconic world like Dervish and Death, and The Fortress. Although you can now stun and impress Balkan friends by knowing his name. it is a lesson to all true writers who aspire in transcending to literature, just as the would-be artist aspires to become a master painter like Picasso, Titian or whomever. But here is the key, it is impossible to properly be on the side of Kings and despots, presidents, dictators and oligarchs, because theirs eschews all that the writer must stand for-justice and ultimate freedom of expression, which are antithetical to power. To do so is to engage in the censorship of systems and society. Be outside all of those.

The writer, whether overt and consciously, or intuitively and purposefully, is by definition subversive. Anything less is a betrayal or worse, a capitulation. Dervish and Death was, in part a postscript regarding his brother’s execution while they were both partisans during the Second World War. The Fortress, while set during the Ottoman Occupation, was an indictment of life during the post-war Communist period. each writer must find their own period and speak real and eternal human truths. It is far less about being partisan; liking this administration, hating that one. The test and filter must me how it exalts that which binds every soul regardless of race, national origin, religion and politics, though those are certainty ample stagecraft and kindling for the pyre of light and passion and love upon which your story is crafted.

This, by the way, is what I think of while walking the dog, and as an outsider, I am always happy for his feedback…

Prayers for Bowie. Sucks to be a Squirrel in Heaven…

Oh, sorry, I’m talking about the dog, not the pop star. My bad. Still, I wanted to relate a conversation yesterday with my friend, Joe, who after 13 years lost his companion and beloved pet, Bowie. Understandably, and properly, Joe was grieving. He had made a heart-breaking decision most pet owners must make. With emotion in his voice Joe found solace that Bowie was someplace better now, chasing squirrels for eternity. I’ve said the same thing about pet cats, wishing they were someplace where they could chase birds and mice to their hearts content. That got me to thinking.

It must suck being a squirrel in that other place. It finally gets a chance to chill with an endless bowl of acorns, and here comes all these freakin’ dogs, spoiling eternity. Heaven for cats, hell for mice. Valhalla for hyena’s, torture for, for…whatever it is that hyenas eat. As for the roadrunner and coyote, forever must truly be frustrating and exhausting!

Of course, if we extrapolate that in another direction, when it comes to all of the bullies I faced in high school, god, I am so screwed. I can’t take a forever full of swirlies, when what I was hoping for was an eternity with a perfect and eternally cold beer, my wife sitting beside me without being on Facebook or Pinterest or emailing work on her phone for a change. I hope to hell(see what I did there) eternity is not about hunter and prey. Instead, I think I’d prefer it to be, at least for Bowie, an endless chew toy, an unending string of butts to sniff and a pair of testicles that always tastes like bacon. That is my prayer for Bowie, and the squirrels too…

Much love, Joe.