Author’s Note: The following anecdote first appeared in a comment on this blog. My store of anecdotes is finite, as my long-suffering wife can (and often does) attest. I can’t afford to bury them in, say, the fifth comment on a post about some other subject. That’s just a rookie mistake. In blogging, as in buffet-style dining, one must pace oneself (especially if one has already re-posted most of one’s pieces from The Rabbit Room). In that spirit, and in honor of the fact that I am writing this on a plane trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, I hereby promote the following anecdote from comment to post. I hope you find it edifying.
I went to college at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville was close enough to Charlotte for me to form opinions about that city. They were largely unfavorable opinions. I don’t remember the details of my case against Charlotte, but they were summed up by the bon mot, “I’ve got no use for a city whose goal in life is to be the next Atlanta!” (I had opinions about Atlanta too.)

Not long after we married, my wife and I were driving through the Carolinas, and as we approached Charlotte I once again laid out my strong anti-Charlotte position for her benefit.

“It doesn’t seem so bad to me,” she said as we passed beneath the shadows of the great glass buildings where bankers were going about their bankerly business.

“Pshaw!” I said.

“I’m hungry,” she said. Do you know any good places to eat in Charlotte?”

“How would I know?” I said. “I’ve never been to Charlotte in my life!”

I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget the expressions on my wife’s face at that moment. A look of astonishment gave way to an angry scowl that shaded into a squint that said, if I read it right, “What have I done? I have just attached myself intimately and irrevocably to a man who speaks very articulately of things he knows nothing about.” I could see the wheels turning as she wondered how many of my other well-considered opinions had not basis in reality.

I am happy to report that I have mellowed on the subject of Charlotte, North Carolina. My prejudices were no match for the reality of the place, which is actually quite pleasant and populated by fine people who have plenty of other hopes and dreams besides trying to be the next Atlanta. Incidentally, I’ve decided Atlanta isn’t so bad either.

Bonus Fact: Charlotte is the largest city between Atlanta and Washington, DC.

Bonus Story Recommendation: In his short story collection Here We Are in Paradise, Nashville writer and Charlotte native Tony Earley has a brilliant story called “Charlotte” that I commend to you. I also commend to you everything else that Tony Earley has ever published.

Audience Participation Friday: What Makes You Connect?

It’s Friday again. Today’s audience participation topic comes from native genius and celebrity look-alike SD Smith. SD, by the way, has been posting some great stuff lately on the Rabbit Room, mostly re-posts from his blog.

Anyway, here’s SD’s APF question:

Tell us what are the top factors that motivate you to be really invested in an author/singer/snow-cone maker etc. What elements are essential to you? Is it good story? A sense of shared values? A sense of connection to the artist (through blog/FB/twitter/attending a concert or signing)?  The person who recommended it?

I love this question and eagerly await your answers.

On another note, I think we need an APF graphic/logo to accompany the post each Friday. Any of you geniuses got any ideas?

Maybe something like this:

My Favorite Jokes: The Smoking Rabbit



There is great wisdom to be found in jokes. There is great foolishness to be found in jokes, too, of course, but I love the ones that sit right in that sweet spot where hilarity meets real insight. This is is one of them:
There was this lab where the scientists were doing research on the health effects of cigarettes. They kept a rabbit in a cage and forced him to smoke cigarettes all day long–four packs a day. The wild rabbits who lived in the woods nearby got wind of what was happening in the lab and were scandalized. So one night after the scientists had gone home to their families, the wild rabbits organized a burgling party to break into the lab and spring the lab rabbit. It went off without a hitch. The rabbits disabled the alarmed, jimmied the door, opened the cage, and scampered out into the moonglow with their new-found comrade before the night watchman ever knew what happened.

It was the best night of the lab rabbit’s life. He fairly snorted the crisp air of freedom and capered about for joy. The wild rabbits took the lab rabbit to raid a nearby garden, and he had carrots and lettuces and radishes for the first time in his life. He had never eaten anything but pelletized food, and he couldn’t believe that such delicacies existed in this world. The rabbits celebrated until the wee hours of the morning, finally sleeping where they fell in exultant exhaustion, satisfied that they had done a good thing in ushering a poor, oppressed brother into new freedom.

When the sun came up, however, the lab rabbit was nowhere to be seen. The wild rabbits looked in every brushpile and behind every stump in the meadow, to no avail. At last they tracked him to the steps of the laboratory, where he was frantically lurching at the locked door.The wild rabbits gaped at one another in mute astonishment. Finally one of them called to the lab rabbit, who, in his frenzy, hadn’t noticed they were behind him. “What are you doing?!” he asked.

The lab rabbit wheeled around, fixed him with a twitchy stare, and barked, “I’ve got to have another cigarette!”

P.S. I told this joke at the dinner table a year or so ago. The next day my daughter regaled her kindergarten class with the story. Her teacher only caught the punch line; picture a little blonde-haired girl with one eye squinted and one eye staring wide declaiming, “I’ve got to have another cigarette!”

Audience Participation Friday: The Girl in Subway

A couple of weeks ago I posted a very short vignette about a girl I saw through the window of a Subway sandwich shop. It was short enough to reproduce in its entirety:
“I walked past a Subway sandwich shop in downtown Nashville the other day. In the booth by the window sat a lovely young woman in a sequined dress. She had the saddest look on her face–a look that said, “You put on a sequined dress, you expect good things to happen; you don’t expect to find yourself in the Subway eating a sandwich at two o’clock in the afternoon.

“The young woman raised her sandwich from the table, but before she got it to her lips, her courage failed her. Her face crumpled, he sandwich dropped to the formica, and she gave herself over to a piteous sobbing.”

A few of you complained at the incompleteness of the thing. Others asked what happened next. The answer, of course, is that I don’t know what happened next. I witnessed all of three seconds of her story. I don’t know how she got in that state either. So I’m turning things over to you, dear reader. Your assignment for Audience Participation Friday is to tell what the girl was so sad about, what happened next, or both.

Smoke Was Smelled: Audience Participation Warmup

I know it’s not Audience Participation Friday yet, but I’ve got this Audience Participation Friday all planned out, and something else came up that needs discussing by the readers of, so this week we’re going to have an Audience Participation Thursday AND an Audience Participation Friday.

I get the twitter feed for the Library of Congress (unfortunately, it’s not as exciting as it sounds). There was a most unusual tweet from the LOC yesterday. It went like this: “The Madison Bldg. has been evacuated after smoke was smelled. Will update.” First, let me say that a later tweet said that the smell was traced to an air handler in the HVAC system. So all is well. But I was a little startled by that phrase “smoke was smelled.” One of the most awkward passive constructions you’re liable to see.

But I’d rather light a candle than curse the Library of Congress’s darkness. So here’s our warm-up discussion question: what should the LOC twitterer have said instead? I appreciate the fact that the twitterer was using sensory language; smoke wasn’t detected, but smelled. And we wouldn’t expect the tweet to say “Joe Wilson smelled smoke in the Madison Building.” So, put yourself in the shoes of the Library of Congress intern (don’t you figure it’s an intern?) who’s in charge of the Twitter feed. How would you have told the Twittersphere the alarming news that everybody was sent screaming from the Madison Building on account of fire? Remember, you only get 140 characters.

Bonus Warmup: For Audience Participation Friday, you’ll be telling more of the story of the girl we left crying in the Subway sandwich shop a couple of weeks ago. What was she crying about? What happened next? I’m giving you a heads up so you’ll have some time to think on it.

Symbolism and The Prison-Issue Joke Book

There was this guy who got sent to prison. Wandering around the yard on his first day, he noticed that a man would shout out a number–“a hundred and twelve” or “thirteen” or “seventy-eight”–and everybody within earshot would laugh and laugh. Perplexed, the new prisoner asked one of his colleagues what everybody was laughing about. “Jokes,” the old prisoner said. “Remember the prison-issue joke book you got when you got here–along with the the prison-issue khakis and prison-issue toothbrush?”
“Yes,” said the new man.

“Well, we’ve all read through the joke book so many times that we know all the jokes by number. So instead of telling each other the jokes, we just call out the number to the joke we want to tell. Saves a lot of time.”

Eager to fit in, the new inmate stood up on a bench in the prison yard and yelled, “Forty-six!” Everybody stopped and stared. Nobody laughed. Near the corner of the bench the man heard one prisoner say to another, “Some guys don’t know how to tell a joke.”


I taught my way through Vanderbilt’s PhD program, and when we discussed symbolism, I always told the joke about the prison-issue joke book. It was my way of explaining what T.S. Eliot called “the objective correlative.” Here’s how Eliot himself explained it:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

When I taught literature, I was very interested in symbolism and the objective correlative. It certainly gives you something to talk about with freshmen and sophomores. Step 1: “What do trees symbolize in All Quiet on the Western Front?” Steps 2-14: “Here on page [fill in blank], the author mentions a tree. What do you think he’s trying to get across here?” In other words, you learn the formula (the set of objects, the situation, the chain of events) and thenceforth, whenever you encounter the formula, you crank out the meaning or the emotion. Read More

Audience Participation Friday: Meta-APF

At the risk of blowing everybody’s mind, the topic for Audience Participation Friday this week is Audience Participation Friday. I realize this is more postmodern than what you’re accustomed to at, but I’m running a little short on insightful and entertaining discussion topics. I thought I’d open things up to you, the audience. What do you think would make a good topic for an upcoming Audience Participation Friday, and why? To prime the pump, I’ll offer a couple from Aaron Roughton. To wit:

  • How did you find out that Santa wasn’t real?
  • What was the goofiest white elephant gift you’ve ever received?
  • What are three things you want to do in 2011?

If this goes well, I may not have to come up with any more APF topics this year. I’m counting on you.

Unsolicited Writing Advice: On the Real World

Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

I was reading some writing blog or listserv a few years back, and I ran across a fellow–a writer of espionage-action thrillers–who was trying to work himself out of a plot dilemma. His characters were schlepping across an arctic waste in Norway or Finland or someplace, and there they had been schlepping for a good long while. He felt he needed something to happen, so he was going to drop a village onto this vast arctic waste, a place where his characters could meet some new people, maybe get into a scrape or two.
I urged the fellow not to do it. The arctic waste in question is a real place, and there are reasons there are no villages there. I challenged the writer to spend some time pondering a) why there are no villages where he wished there was a village, b) what is there instead of villagers (smugglers? moonshiners? hermits?), and c) what narrative possibilities present themselves. Plopping down a village would be the easy and convenient thing. But by taking that easier route, the author may miss out on some real rewards. Aren’t smugglers and hermits more interesting than villagers anyway?

The fiction writer has the luxury of not sticking to the facts on the ground. He can change whatever he wants to change in his fictional world; who’s going to stop him? Writers of fantasy fiction have even more freedom in that regard. But there are dangers therein. Imaginative worlds are frictionless worlds. And frictionless is another word for slippery.

I’m a big fan of creative non-fiction. A good essayist limits himself to the facts as he finds them, then rassles around with those facts until meaning reveals itself. The facts on the ground become metaphors and symbols for deeper truths that lie behind and beneath them. There’s a whole worldview there. I really believe that good fiction–including fantasy fiction–begins with a willingness to search, like a non-fiction writer, for the meanings that inhere in the facts of the world around us. Different writers will choose to disguise the facts on the ground to a greater or lesser degree. But when they unmoor themselves entirely from the facts of our shared world in the creation of their own, the story suffers.

I’m not through articulating this idea. I imagine there will be two or three more posts on these topics in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the “real world” in imaginative fiction.

Audience Participation Friday: Christmas Stories

Read-aloud at the Rogers house the last few nights has been The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. It’s a hilarious story about a family of juvenile delinquents named Herdman who hijack a church’s Christmas pageant to the shock and horror of all the nice people who have always run the show. The girl who plays the part of Mary smokes cigars in the church bathroom. Half the shepherds want to quit out of sheer terror of the Angel of the Lord. Never having been to church, the Herdmans know nothing about the story they’re acting out. But as they act it out, a couple of things happen. First, they strip away all the sentimentality that clouds the significance of the Nativity. The rag-tagginess of the original Christmas comes to life in the Herdmans’ off-the-mark interpretation. And second, as the Herdmans experience the Christmas story for the first time, they are moved in ways that the church kids never have been. They get it wrong in a dozen different ways, but they are deeply affected by a story story that is just water off a duck’s back for their self-righteous peers.
I have the occasional quibble with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever; but I love the fact that it shocks the reader. The Christmas story is supposed to be a shocking. To sentimentalize the story, to make it sweet and palatable, is to strip it of much of its power. By the way, this is why I love Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” sung like an angel by Jill Phillips on Behold the Lamb of God, my favorite Christmas album ever. Here’s the first stanza and chorus:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love.

Anyway, that brings us to the audience participation portion of our program. What are some of your favorite Christmas stories (besides THE Christmas Story), and why?

An Encounter with a Phrenologist

If you’ve read The Charlatan’s Boy, you know that phrenology–the “science” of reading a person’s character by the shape of his or her skull–plays a significant role. A blogger brought to my attention the following account of one person’s run-in with a phrenologist. It comes from The History of Phrenology on the Web, which is interesting if you like that sort of thing. And I do.
A recollection of the Rev. G.C. Rankin, looking back on his school days in the eastern United States, circa 1870:

“Among the students was a bright young fellow who had been under the tuition of the old teacher three or four years and he had been making a specialty of phrenology, and occasionally the boys would congregate in one of the rooms and Bob Rutherford would examine their heads, especially the new boys. He would take the boy, measure his head, place his hand upon the several bumps and call them by name and then decide whether or not he had any aptitude for study or any outlook for development. I had to submit to this ordeal. It was not exactly hazing, but it was on that order. I was somewhat credulous and disposed to believe what was ordinarily told me and, in some sense, this was a serious matter to me. It was made such by those who witnessed the proceeding. The fellow proceeded to measure my head from the forehead to the back, and from one ear to the other, and then he pressed his hands upon the protuberances carefully and called them by name. He felt my pulse, looked carefully at my complexion and defined it, and then retired to make his calculations in order to reveal my destiny. Read More

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