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PATCH OF DIRT: The Genesis of a Novel

Part 1: The Foundation

Film, painting and poetry have always been at the heart of my writing.

I was an art major in high school and won the major art award as a senior. I loved using the palette knife to create textures and studying the works of other painters. In college I majored in English and minored in Art History. At the same time I was writing a lot of poetry and won the Robert Frost Poetry Medal for my work. My prize was Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” which I still have and reread.

I’d always been interested in filmmaking and had the opportunity in college to explore film as part of the overall art curriculum. The widow of Robert Flaherty lived in Putney, Vermont where I went to college. One night several of us were invited to her house to look at the outtakes from her husband’s “The Louisana Story.” There were enough outtakes to make at least two more films. The black and white footage was breathtaking—how did he know which were the right shots to use? Was it instinct or something only the gifted were born with?

During my film studies at college I learned about the psychology of the cut, how to use camera angles and how to express myself through this medium. I wanted to create the same filmic poetry I’d seen in Flaherty’s outtakes. Although a lot of my writing is "cinematic" it is nowhere near the poetry of Flaherty.

When I moved to New York City I took a poetry class with the Philippine poet, Jose Garcia Villa at the New School. Two things he said stayed with me; poetry should evoke an emotional response and poetry is written with words not ideas. I would describe my poetry as surrealistic impressionism. I love using images not only in my poetry but in my fiction.

When I stopped writing poetry I turned my attention to writing short stories. The ideas I had for my words would no longer fit the poetic form.

For me, fiction is where dreams and reality meet and touch the soul. It is the medium of the conscious, the interpretation of reality. Like film, fiction operates through the senses.

I like my stories to be about something—they have to go somewhere and they have to prove something. Their words are rich in meanings; they carry worlds of connotations; they paint pictures; recall memories; they command and enrapture.

How we dote on a baby’s words and can translate them into anything we wish. “Hi there!” can open our future, just as “So long” can be goodbye forever.

My present difficulty is the way words escape me and slip away like shadows as I write. I can see and feel the words I want to use, but am afraid of the words I want to use because they might make a travesty of what I them to mean. I want my words to be like Bunuel, Bergman’s and Flaherty’s images.

My first novel was a challenge because of the larger canvas it presented to me. Even though I have written over two dozen short stories, three chapbooks, two novellas, one nonfiction book, and several dozen poems, I had trouble adjusting to its broad panoramic sweep, length and complex characters presented in a linear fashion for both action and scenes.

The next blog will begin with the process I went through as I transitioned into the creation of “Patch of Dirt.”

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