Billy Coffey
Billy Coffey

The value of our art

April 14, 2014  

image courtesy of google images. Spangled Blengins, Boy King Islands. One is a young Tuskorhorian, the other a human headed Dortherean by Henry Darger

image courtesy of google images. Spangled Blengins, Boy King Islands. One is a young Tuskorhorian, the other a human headed Dortherean by Henry Darger

Let me tell you about Henry Darger, the man who wrote one of the most detailed and bizarre books in history.

Never heard of him? Me neither. At least, not until I happened to stumble upon his story a few weeks ago. Seems strange that someone who did something so grand could be so unknown, doesn’t it? But it’s true. In fact, you could even say that’s why Henry was so extraordinary.

image courtesy of google images

image courtesy of google images

He was a janitor. Nothing so special about that, but nothing so wrong with it, either. There is no correlation between who a person is and what that person does for a living. Einstein was a patent clerk. Faulkner a mailman. Henry Darger mopped floors.

An unassuming man. A quiet man. He never married, never really had friends. Just a regular guy living a regular life, one of the faceless masses that occupy so much of the world who are here for a short while and then gone forever.

Henry left in 1973.

There are no accounts of his funeral. I don’t know if anyone attended at all, though I like to think they did. I like to think there was a crowd huddled around his casket that day to bid him farewell.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that so many people are discovered to have been truly extraordinary only after their passing. Such was the case with Henry. A few days after his passing, his landlord went through his apartment to ready it for rent. What he found was astonishing.

What he found hidden among Henry’s possessions was a manuscript. Its title may give you a clue as to the story’s scope and magnitude:

THE STORY OF THE VIVIAN GIRLS, IN WHAT IS KNOWN AS THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, OF THE GLANDECO-ANGELINIAN WAR STORM, CAUSED BY THE CHILD SLAVE REBELLION

Did you get that? If not, I can’t blame you. I had to read the title three times to even understand a little of it, and that doesn’t count the time I actually wrote it out.

The breadth and scope of Henry’s book went well beyond epic. The manuscript itself contained 15,000 pages. Over nine million words. Over 300 watercolor pictures coinciding with the story. Some of the illustrations were so large they measured ten feet wide.

A lifetime’s worth of work. Years upon years of solitary effort, hundreds of thousands of hours spent writing and painting, creating an entire saga of another world.

And all for no apparent reason. Not only did Henry Darger never seek any sort of publication for his work, he never told a soul about it. His book was his dream and his secret alone.

I’ve thought about Henry Darger a lot since I first read about him. Which, as change or fate would have it, just to happened to be the very week my newest novel released. A tough thing, that. You’d think it wouldn’t be, perhaps, but it is. No matter who an author is or how successful he or she may be or how many books or under his or her belt, the most important thing to us all is that our words matter. Matter to others, matter to the world. We want what we say and think and feel to count for something.

But Henry Darger reminds me that none of those things mean anything. In the end, we cannot account for how the world will judge our work, and so, in the end, the world’s opinion really doesn’t matter. Simple as that.

What matters—what counts—is that our words stir not the world, but ourselves. That they conjure in our own hearts and minds a kind of magic that neither the years nor the work can dull. The kind of magic that sustains us in our lonely times and gives our own private worlds meaning. The kind of magic that tinges even the life of a simple janitor with greatness.

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Cheating the seasons

April 10, 2014  

image courtesy of photobucket.com

image courtesy of photobucket.com

Three weeks ago…

I’m standing on my front porch in the early a.m., as is my habit before starting the day. A cup of coffee and a view of the neighborhood serves as my morning news, and it’s all the news I need. The mountains and the creek are right where I left them last night. I need that assurance. It reminds me that even if the world’s a mess, the mountains and the creek are still here and so am I.

My eyes wander to the flower beds below me, and then to the green something poking up from the mulch and dirt. To me, flowers have always been like people I meet once and then again months later—I can place what they look like but can’t seem to remember their names. So ask if me if we have roses and daisies and begonias, and I’ll answer no. I will say, however, that we have red flowers and white flowers and pink flowers.

But these green things shooting up from the earth? These I know.

Tulips.

The tulips are the first spring flowers to sprout around here. Which to me makes them much more than just a plant, but a vital part of nature’s calendar. When you begin to see tulips, you know better times are at hand. No more cold, no more snow, no more gray skies and bare trees. Everything is about to be make new again.

Seeing that first tulip means I’ve made it. That I’ve survived one more long and dreary winter.

That’s how it usually is, anyway. But as I stand there staring down at this first true sign of spring, all the joy and peace I know I should be feeling isn’t there.

Because I’ve cheated, you see. These aren’t the first tulips I’ve seen this year.

The local nursery is owned by relatives of mine, Mennonites with green thumbs. They can grow anything. And thanks to the modern marvels of both science and climate controlled greenhouses, they can grow anything at any time. Even in the middle of the worst winter I could remember.

So in the middle of January and our third consecutive snowstorm, I stopped one day to say hello and buy some tulips. Things were getting pretty blah at that point, and so was I. I was tired of having to endure and scrape by. Tired of the sadness and outright heartache that winter always seems to bring.

I needed an act of defiance. A symbol of hope.

So I brought the tulips home and sat them right in front of the window. I’d stare at them as the snow fell and thumb my nose at Old Man Winter. When they died, I bought more. And then more. I’ve had tulips for about two months now in an effort to thwart the one barren and agonizing season I dread most.

It’s worked, too.

Maybe too well.

Because as I look down upon this miracle of God below me, it doesn’t seem like a miracle at all. It just seems like a tulip.

The rusty tumblers of my mind click into place and open, revealing a very important truth. I had wanted to skip a season. Winter and I have never gotten along, so I thought keeping a steady supply of spring on hand would cheer me. I was right about that. I did.

But I never considered the consequences of having those flowers by the window. I was so consumed with the now that I dismissed the later. I surrounded myself with a symbol of joy and warmth for so long that it became the same old. My tulips lost their luster not by becoming rare, but by becoming familiar.

Which is why next year I think I’ll leave them at the nursery down the road. I’ll let someone else give it a try. I will instead take the seasons as they come. I’ll revel in the sunshine while I have it and then stumble through the months of cold and gray as best as I can.

We’re not meant for perpetual joy, I think. There are seasons in the world and there are seasons in us, and each have their own purpose.

We are made for winter as much as spring. Made for tears as much as for laughter.

And we are here not just to dance, but to endure.

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And the winner is…

April 7, 2014  

image courtesy of google images

image courtesy of google images

I’ve written (and read) my share of blog posts about the craft of writing, but the following is by far my favorite. I’m reposting it today because I needed a reminder of why I do what I do. Maybe some of you do, too.

Writing Naked

“I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable.”
–Cynthia Ozick

I took exactly one class in writing. It was about fifteen years ago at the community college and was taught by a real published author whose name I cannot recall. But she was published, and as far as I was concerned that was all the credentials she needed.

The first class turned out to be the most useful. That’s not to say the instruction given in the proceeding eleven weeks of the course wasn’t useful. It was. But that first night alone was worth the money.

The twenty or so people in the class formed a semi-circle around the professor, who stood in behind a wooden podium that was much more intimidating than she. We sat at attention, notebooks ready, eager to have our heads filled with the hidden secrets of literary success.

“Tell me,” she said, “what does one need to write?”

The more outgoing among the class were quick with suggestions:

“Time.”

“Perseverance.”

“Skill.”

“Connections.” (That one was met with a nervous chuckle from the rest of the class.)

“Practice.”

Each was met with an approving nod and so was written down by everyone, myself included. But that really wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“Those are good suggestions,” she said, “but you’re leaving the most important aspect out. Anyone?”

No one.

“Courage,” she said.

I didn’t really understand that and snickered under my breath. Courage? Soldiers needed courage. Cops needed courage. EMTs and stunt men and bullfighters. But writers? Sitting on your butt and typing on a keyboard did not take courage.

“There are some who might disagree with that,” she said—and to this day I swear she looked at me when she said it—“and I understand. You disagree because you’re writing with your clothes on. By the time you leave here, you’ll be writing naked.”

I’ll admit I almost walked out then. I’d heard about kooky writing classes given by kooky professors who did some pretty strange things in the name of “art.” I was afraid if I stuck around I’d end up dressed in a blue tracksuit with a cup of Kool-Aid in my hand because a comet was passing by to take me to heaven.

I stayed in my seat on the whim she was speaking metaphorically.

“There is no greater fear than to face a blank page,” she said. “It mocks and threatens. It challenges you. Give it power, and it will eat you alive. Face it clothed, and you will fail. The only way to beat the blank page is to attack it naked.”

Twelve of the twenty students raised their hands.

“Wait, wait,” she said, moving her hands in a downward motion. “No, I’m not speaking literally. But I’m not joking, either. Let me ask you something else. Why do people write?”

More hands in the air, which she chose to ignore.

“People write because they must. Because there is a story inside them that is meant to be shared with the world. But having that story inside you doesn’t make you a writer. How you tell that story does. And you tell it through honesty.”

She told us to put our pens down and just listen.

“Writers fail because they come to the page fully clothed. They adorn themselves with fanciful plots and layer themselves with complicated character development. They use flowery prose and words you have to look up in the dictionary. They do this not to impress their readers, but to keep their readers at arm’s length. They’re afraid. Afraid to bare their souls and inject themselves into their work. For that they are cowards.

“Don’t simply tell me that faith saves you, tell me how it almost failed you, too. Don’t tell me about love, speak of your passion. Don’t tell me you’re hurt, let me see your heart breaking. I don’t want to see your talent on the page, I want to see your blood. Dare to be naked before your readers. Because that is writing, and everything else is worthless crap.”

I’ll always remember that. In fact, written on an index card taped to my lamp are these two words—Be Naked. Because she was right, that’s what writing is all about. Fiction or non, poetry or devotional, funny or serious, it doesn’t matter. Our calling is still the same:

To bare ourselves so we may be the mirror the world holds to itself.

* * * * * *

And thanks in no small part to my latest attempt at naked writing, Sylvia Shroades has won a brand new kindle fire in the Litfuse giveaway for The Devil Walks in Mattingly. Thanks to everyone for participating. Congratulations, Sylvia. Let that be the first book you download!

* * * * * *

The winner of last week’s signed book giveaway is Jennifer Essad. Congratulations to you, too Jennifer. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Stonecutter

April 3, 2014  

Stone CutterThere are those in this world (and I am chief among them) who tend to devote a lot of their time to being more and better. Not a bad thing at all, unless of course you start thinking that who you are and what you’re doing now just isn’t good enough. Not true, I say. Not true at all…

I came across this a few days ago and loved it so much that I wanted to share it here. The words are mine, but the story is an ancient one from China:

There was once a stonecutter who lived in a tiny shack on the outskirts of his town. Every morning he would rise out of his simple bed and trudge off to work in the quarries. He hated his tiny job and his tiny shack, but he especially hated his tiny life.

One morning he passed by a wealthy merchant’s house. The gates of the courtyard were open, and through it the stonecutter could see the merchant’s fine possessions and important guests. “I wish I could be that wealthy merchant,” he said to himself. Then he would no longer have to suffer through life with a tiny job and shack and life.

Then, a miracle happened.

He woke the next morning to find that he had indeed become that wealthy merchant. He enjoyed more power and influence than he had ever dreamed and had more riches than he could ever spend. But then a government official passed by the house, carried in a grand chair by servants. Soldiers flanked each side blowing horns and commanding respect. Everyone, no matter how powerful and wealthy, had to bow to the official. “I wish I could become that official,” the man said. “No one could be more powerful than him.”

Another miracle.

He awoke the next morning to find that he was now the government official. He was carried through the city by servants, guarded by soldiers, and everyone was forced to bow to him. But as the day was hot, he noticed the sun was causing him to sweat. And more, he noticed that the sun didn’t care if he was a government official or not. “I wish I could be the sun,” he thought to himself. “Surely there is nothing more powerful than that.”

Then he became the sun, shining his power down upon the earth, giving life and taking it at his own whim. But as he was shining, he noticed a dark cloud pass between him and the land. No matter how hard he shone, the cloud prevented his light from reaching the ground. “I wish I were that cloud,” he said. “Then even the sun would have to obey me.”

And he became the cloud, rolling over the land to bring comfort from the heat and terror with his storms. He was both feared and revered, and no one stood against him. But then he discovered that the wind would blow him here and there without his consent. “No one tells me what to do,” he said. “I want to be the wind!”

So be became the wind, uprooting trees and spreading fires and damaging homes. Nothing, he thought, could stand against him. But then one day he blew against a mountain. A no matter how hard he worked, the mountain would not budge. “I want to be that mountain,” he said.

And he became the mountain. More stable than the merchant, more powerful than the official. Unfazed by the sun and the clouds and the wind. But as he rested there, content and finally at peace, he found that a small part of himself was slowly being chipped away. “What is causing this?” he asked. “I am a giant mountain. What could be more powerful than I?”

He looked down and saw far below a tiny speck hard at work. And with that sight he began to cry, for he knew then all his work and all his dreaming had been for naught.

For below him was the one thing in the world even more powerful than he:

A stonecutter.

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Books and their covers

March 31, 2014  

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 6.25.57 PMI see him there just down the street. See the ratty jeans that are too small and the jacket that may have fit once but is now too big. See the hat pulled down over his bushy hair and his empty eyes. And the sign—HOMELESS PLEASE GIVE—that is propped against his left leg.

A few who pass offer him quarters and dollar bills. One brings a cup of coffee. Another a candy bar. He takes them with a nod, but no words. One woman offers him both money and a sandwich from the 7-11 down the road. As she walks away, he stares at her backside and smiles.

The patch on his right sleeve is the eagle of the 101st Airborne. Army. A veteran. But then he turns and I see above his left pocket the globe and anchor of the Marine Corps.

I rub my chin. Something’s wrong here.

Another dollar from another woman, which brings another nod and another leer as she walks away. He tips his cap in salute of her appearance. As he does, he exposes the gold watch on his wrist.

I rub my chin again.

Then I begin to understand.

Such sights are more common than we would like to admit—people who pretend to be homeless, penniless, and hopeless but who in fact are none of the above. They spend their days playing to the sympathies of the public and spend their nights in their own homes mocking those good deeds.

And this, I think to myself, is one of those people.

I remain where I am and study his technique. He’s had practice, this man. He knows how to look and act his part, though the gold watch on his wrist and the conflicting patches on his jacket tell me he hasn’t been at this little charade long.

But his silence more than makes up for his lapses. Silence conveys a sense of brokenness, and he has to act broken. The leering at the women, though, is trouble. He’ll have to work on that if he wants to stay in character.

He tips his cap again to another passerby. I notice more this time. His hand is shaking in an almost violent spasm. He’s sniffing, too. Not a big deal in the winter, but this is a warm spring day.

I think I know where all the money he collects out here goes.

Right up his nose.

The cycle of addiction brings out the worst in people. It’s a reality of desperation and wasting away that is only slightly masked by a false and fleeting bliss. It cradles and chokes you at the same time.

He’s rocking back and forth now. I’m not sure if that’s part of the act of it he just needs to move. Or maybe the drugs are wearing off.

He’s decided to use the shakes to his advantage, drawing people to his decay by holding the sign in his trembling hand. It works. Five out of the next twenty people stop to donate. This time there’s much more green than silver.

What should I do with this man? Pity him? Scorn him? Call him unfortunate or lost? Call him worse? I’m not sure. But I know he’s not what he pretends to be, and I know I can’t stand here and watch him any longer.

As he stands between me and my truck, I have to walk past him. Each step brings a little more pity for the addiction choking him and a little less anger for the lie he’s living. I decide this is a test. Give to the poor, Jesus said. Do good. Whatever bad he does with what I give him is his choice, not my consequence.

I reach into my pocket. As I pass, I put the dollar in his hand.

He says, “Thanks, you stupid redneck.”

He shoves my dollar into his pocket before I could snatch it back. I stare at him, fuming.

I spend my ride home enjoying neither sights nor music. I can’t speak, can’t concentrate, can barely think. Anger consumes me.

Not because he took my gift. Not even because he called me a name.

But because he dared to judge me by appearance alone.

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