No Translation Possible: On Reading Roberto Bolaño

“Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I’d rather not talk about it, because I didn’t understand it.”
- Roberto Bolaño, “The Savage Detectives” 


Patti Smith with a Roberto Bolaño portrait

Patti Smith with a Roberto Bolaño portrait

I have discovered the work of Chilean poet/novelist/essayist, Roberto Bolaño, in the past year. For years I stayed away from this dude because it seemed like he was probably one of those difficult writers who made a reader’s journey very time consuming and dicey. Boy, was I wrong!

I want to admit here first that I’m mesmerized by what Bolaño produced in his all too short career. I can’t say I’m an addict, but I do love reading pretty much anything he’s ever written. The experience is uncanny. He tends not to overload [Read more…]

“Natural Symbols”: On the Brutality of Popular Opinion and Why You Think You’re Always Right

Mary Douglas, Anthropologist

Mary Douglas, Anthropologist

Anthropologist Mary Douglas published a book called Natural Symbols 45 years ago. It’s a gateway into thinking about how individuals encode their perceptions of reality through the complex cosmology of cultural symbols they live in — bodily or “natural” symbols in particular. The idea of the book was to develop a way of talking about how well the individual is integrated into society.  Social integration is the idea of “order” that each of us carries with us everyday. In a nutshell, she was at play with the ideas of taboo and purity.

Ya’ think that’s some boring shit? Well, maybe, except when you actually try to understand what the hell is going on in the world today.

What we just went through last fall, standing in little pockets around the country in
judgment of police in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island was an extreme case of how “natural symbols” work in real life. There was a huge amount of emotion attached to these two [Read more…]

“Writing Blue Highways”: My Interview with William Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon (Photo Credit: Dave Leiker,

Credit: Dave Leiker,

Over at Talking Writing they just posted an interview I did with the great American travel writer and chronicler of deep culture, William Least Heat-Moon. I had a lot of fun researching and preparing for this Q&A session. I think Bill had a good time answering my questions.

We talk about his newest book, the need to write with care, book categories, and digital publishing, among other things. Here’s a snip from my introduction. You can read the whole piece over at TW right now. Just follow the link at the end of this cut.

I highly recommend purchasing Writing Blue Highways and Blue Highways itself as holiday gifts this year. These are true examples of great writing by one of this country’s most distinguished bards.

William Least Heat-Moon: “Damnable Speed”

TW Interview by David Biddle

December 10, 2014

In 1982, the Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown published Blue Highways: A Journey into America. It’s William Least Heat-Moon’s account of a three-month, 14,000-mile road trip he took in a converted mini-van he called Ghost Dancing. Heat-Moon drove the back roads designated as blue lines in his Rand McNally Atlas.

Blue Highways surprised the publishing world. It was hard to categorize yet sat on the bestseller list for nearly a year. Part social history, part travel writing, and part spiritual odyssey, Blue Highways offers tales of America’s forgotten “outback” and the people still connected to that fading world. The writing is lyrical, full of life lessons, and informed by a strong environmental ethic. Heat-Moon went on to publish many other works, including the recent An Osage Journey to Europe, 1827-1830, coauthored with James K. Wallace (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

His latest project is Writing Blue Highways (University of Missouri Press, 2014). It’s an autobiographical tale of the trials and tribulations of a then-unknown author struggling through nearly four years to write (and rewrite ten-plus different times) an acceptable manuscript for publication. But more important, Writing Blue Highways is also the definitive story of how a work of literary art, from conception to publication, comes to be. Read the rest in Talking Writing’s Holiday Issue 2014.

“Magical Thinking” Without Defining Writing Talent

JohnGardner Art of Ficion Cover

Not the cover you usually see for this great book.

Over at The Millions Michael Bourne (the writer, not the center fielder) has an essay this week called “Magical Thinking: Talent and the Cult of Craft.” Lots of great comments and thinking come after his pretty thoughtful exploration of the question of success in the writing world: Talent? or Craft?

Bourne makes a good case against this statement in John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction:

“[T]he truth is that though the ability to write well is partly a gift — like the ability to play basketball well or outguess the stock market — writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.”

Maybe Bourne lays it on a little thick about the problem of writers leaning a bit too heavily on the idea of studying the mechanics of good writing and storytelling (especially in MFA and college creative writing programs). I didn’t really pay much attention to that side of the equation. The idea of “talent” just really struck me. There’s no question [Read more…]

Happy Birthday to Jeffy (Buckley)

I’m about to bombard all my Facebook peeps and Twitter followers with a breadcrumb path of links to Jeff Buckley videos. No apologies folks. Jeffy would have been 48 on Monday, November 17 (my mom’s birthday…she’s wherever Jeff may be now).

If you know Jeff’s work, then you’ll enjoy some of the choice clips I’m posting. If you don’t enjoy Jeff, watch them anyway, cuz this is a problem you need to resolve. The dude could sing, play, perform, and compose like no other (‘cept maybe Jimi).

And if you don’t really know Buckley, or if you’ve kind of just wondered, well, there’s eight short videos coming at you over the next 36 hours.

And let me note, this is not stupid fan-boy idolatry. I’m a musician and a singer. Music has been a huge part of my life. The dude was a fucking genius. The fact that we lost him at the age of 30 should haunt every one of us forever. He gets a super special cameo spot in my novel, Beyond the Will of God, because of the strange loss to music and the arts  his passing meant. Pay attention to what he says in the interview I’m posting on Sunday evening. There’s some interesting stuff about the mystery of creativity and the power of music.

Happy Birthday, Jeff. Happy Birthday to Jeff’s mom, Mary Guibert, too. And a big Mmwaah birthday kiss to my mom, Ellen Horgan, as well.

Tribute to Galway Kinnell, an American Poet

Back cover of "Mortal Acts, Mortal Words"

Back cover of “Mortal Acts, Mortal Words”

I published a tribute to Galway Kinnell over at last week. Kinnell, certainly one of this country’s most important poets of the last fifty year, died on October 28. Read the beginning of the piece here, then check out the rest at

The Mortal Sounds of Galway Kinnell: Some Last Lines,

“what, anyway,
was that sticky infusion, that rank flavor of blood, that
poetry, by which I lived?”

last lines of “The Bear,” from Body Rags (1965)

Galway Kinnell’s poetry is responsible in part for keeping me going in the early days of trying to take myself seriously as a writer. Kinnell died about a week ago at the age of 87 after a battle with leukemia. Whenever I am struck low by something big, or even something that won’t let me escape like rapture, I turn to collections of this great Irish American poet’s work — Body Rags, Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, What a Kingdom It Was, or The Book of Nightmares. I don’t read his poems to lift me up or calm me down so much as to screw me all the way back in again. Life is hard. Pain is part of beauty. Death has immense meaning. Perhaps our fear of it should not be met with anger or rage so much as sorrow and love. Galway Kinnell had an acute ability to go into the tenderness of life’s most hardcore realities and light things up just the right way.

My college poetry professor, Gary Miranda, introduced me to Kinnell’s work. Gary would finish our Tuesday night classes reading us his favorite     Go Here to Read the Rest

Economies of Scale in the Writing World: Beyond Talking Indies

Tower of Books - Buenes Aires, Argentina

Tower of Books – Buenes Aires, Argentina

My fall “Talking Indies” column, “Three Money Lessons for Starry Eyed Authors,” comes out today at TW. It summarizes three important lessons I’ve learned since I dove full-time into the publishing and writing world in 2012. The column is intended to be slightly provocative and amusing as well as heuristic with respect to self-publishing. It deals, essentially, with key economic/business elements that all writers need to understand — supply and demand in the writing world is not something to gloss over if you’re an indie author.

These three lessons are not unique to self-publishing. They are true for all the arts, and not just for indie artists, but for everyone in the world of creativity.

1. There’s a shitload of other work out there, i.e., you have more competition than you can possibly imagine (supply)

2. Unless you’re The Beatles or Picasso — or Derek Jeter — no one cares what you just put onto the market (demand)

3. The digital world makes product availability infinitely perpetual (leap frogging the supply and demand problem)

All three points are obvious and essential to understand for success in the modern world where half of what we do, think, [Read more…]

It Always Comes Back to “Hey Joe”

Hey Joe

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 44th anniversary of Jimi Hendrix’s death. He left this world when he was just 27. Thanks to my good friend Derrick Baldwin for reminding me of this. Derrick is one helluva keyboardist and I love it when his band gets him to sing.

Some people think you’re pathetic if you gush even just a smidge about Jimi. Those people don’t know shit and probably think people on “America’s Got Talent” are artists to follow for life. There’s more to art, though, than standing on stage and having yourself electrified into people’s homes.

Watch the video below and listen to what Jimi says about practicing. What separates [Read more…]

Bones of the Trade: An Argument for Pan-Human Poetics


Them Bones

All people are poets. Only some of us know this, but it’s true. Each person has these secret bones in them. This is pan-human. You need to know about these bones, though, to look for them, or you won’t know they’re there.

Text Bones are pulsing white aching things. When words come out of that special place that feels like something from the outside is coming in first, they lodge inside your Text Bones, which are everywhere. After a few moments, they can leave [Read more…]

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