Wise Men Say…

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My childhood was dominated by memories of The King. Elvis Presley, Aaron to be more precise. My mother was in love. She was smitten with this hip-shaking, breath-taking, king of Rock and Roll. We were the family from The Commitments who could not conceive that there was anything better than the lip-curling kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, the voice of a generation before us and one that could not be beaten. Our commitment to The King was complete and it was cemented with our mother’s undying love.

At that point, we never realised that she had another love, one that could never be requited; Rock Hudson. 

I had a particularly bad singing voice. People would stop me in the street just to complain to me about it. You see I loved singing, but singing didn’t love me. Unless I did Elvis Presley songs. Elvis and I, I like to think, were joined at the spiritual hip. We were both working class lads whose middle name began with A (mine was for Andrew not Aaron). For some reason, and this may have been only me who heard this, we both sounded like each other. I would practice at night upon going to bed. It would start with something rocky like King Creole and then move into a couple of love songs, Love me Tender and Only Fools Rush In. that helped to set the scene. With each hip-rolling lyric I was being transformed into The King. I even learned to roll my lip the way he did.

In the sixties, Elvis started to become a little uncool. He started making excrutiatinlgy unbearable films (movies to my American cousins) such as Kissin’ Cousins and Clambake. Regardless of being an Elvis Presley devotee, I kept it quiet if I ever watched these on Saturday afternoons. I did like Flaming Star, a decent western in which he showed a little acting ability and obviously Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and…the list is not endless. Still, I believed that I was becoming Elvis.

My mother loved Elvis whilst my father mocked him a little. Dad was a Frank Sinatra fan and, possibly like me, saw much of himself in his idol. He would never admit that he followed Frank, it was not manly and was certainly not the done thing in working-class West Yorkshire. I tried to keep my Elvis to myself. My mother swooned when one of his songs would be aired on the radio. She positively melted when he was on TV.

“He can only sing certain songs,” my dad would goad.

“Shut up, you. you’re only jealous!” She would snap back.

On those bitterly cold winters nights, I would retreat to the relative comfort of my bedroom, pull an extra coat on the bed, leave my socks on, roll my head to accompany the rock that was to come, and then sing my heart out.

“Shut up!” The chorus would come, “Shut up and go to sleep before your father gets back from the club.”

My singing would then take a downturn into the hardly-audible. I was praying the words, offering up myself to a greater power, the living god of Rock n Roll.

Getting older meant that certain songs could not be sung. The seventies brought Glam Rock, Prog Rock and then Punk Rock. The King must have seen it coming and decided to make himself less and less visible. Ironically, during this time, he was becoming more and more visible through his love of all food bad. His weight shot up as his fame dropped   down. I still managed a neat impersonation of him singing, In The Ghetto. That was a rather socially aware number that I believed was socially acceptable, As The Snow Flies. I have never seen snow flies, but I think that they must be rather hardy little pests.

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On August 16, 1977, The King died.

I was in bed, drifting off to sleep. Too old to sing his songs without my parents considering the option of sectioning me in our local lunatic asylum. I could hear the TV from downstairs. Mum was watching it whilst my dad shared a few pints with his mates at the club.

I heard a long drawn-out, “Oh, no.” Quickly followed by, “No. Please, no.”

I knew he was dead. I went downstairs and found my mum in tears.

“He’s dead, Mike. Elvis is dead. It’s not fair.”

My sisters were both downstairs at this point and they joined he in the ritual shedding of tears. Even my father was sad when he returned. The King was dead.

That night, I tried to summon up his spirit and channel it within me. I could think of no better use for my defunct voice box than to become the conduit for King Creole’s magnificence. It didn’t happen.

My mum got over her infatuation and moved on. She was never the same with her affections and never openly declared her love for icons until later when her somewhat secret love was no secret any more. Rock Hudson, dashingly handsome and quirkily funny in his outings in Pillow Talk with Doris Day, died on October 2nd 1985. He died of Aids related illnesses after hiding his sexuality for al of his movie-star career. My mother sobbed. My father shrugged his shoulders.

“If only he had met me. I could have cured him,” she declared.

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In those days, they had no cure for homosexuality.

Nor for unrequited love. 

 

 

 

For Dark Winter Nights 3

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It was the freezing air that tried to enter. 

For a moment he stood, transfixed by what had taken place. The world had changed and it was waiting for him.

One small step and he was through the door. He wore only flimsy slippers, worn away to the bone. He wanted to turn back. He didn’t.

Under the slight shelter of his porch, he paused momentarily and surveyed the blank covering. It was simpler with snow. It was also easier to pick out tracks that could have been responsible for all of this nonsense.

In his eventual urgency, he had forgotten to take a torch, but a full moon rode the night sky and leant illumination. Snow covered contours, levelled slopes and shadow-covered hazards. It also betrayed tracks, or footsteps, of those that had been there. Yet, although he tried, he could not discern anything of importance.

He had always prided himself on his ability to track and to hunt. Little escaped him when he set himself to the task of proving his worth. In the old days, he had hunted the upper slopes and even the peaks. Both he and his brother ventured far into the higher reaches in order to win the respect of their father. They were as tight a team as any other on the mountains. No, they were tighter. But this didn’t stop their battle.

A year separated them, making him the second in line. Everything would go to the eldest. He had never considered this when they were younger boys, journeying into the winter lands and calling each other’s dare. Their challenges were frequent and forever evolving in difficulty. They liked to push themselves and each other to see what was possible. They had no mother to worry for them and their father expressed little concern. The boys could be gone for a number of days at a time, but there would be nothing of concern coming from the old man; nothing to suggest that he considered that there was any real danger. After all, hadn’t the last of the wolves been killed in his father’s time?

“Stop thinking about it!”

He had spoken these words out loud. He now spoke much of his words out loud. There was nobody to hear him, nobody to suggest that he was a crank. He could do as he liked.

“Hellooo,” he hollered into the vast emptiness and waited for his words to bounce back.

The exertion of the utterance had an unwanted effect. He was sharply aware that he needed to piss again. The house was behind him, further away than he had imagined. He didn’t realise that he had travelled so far away from it. Half a mile, he surmised.  Half a mile? However did that happen?

He had choices: he could turn back to the farmhouse now or he could just relieve himself out here. He could stain the brilliant white with his yellow issue. The idea appealed to him. He liked the freedom of pissing out of doors. He liked the potential offence that it could cause others. He enjoyed spoiling the perfection of it all. Just as long as it didn’t freeze his cock off.

He laughed to himself and started to extract his tool.

The piss was greater than ever. It flowed in an impressively torrential jet of liquid and steam. When it hit the snow, it cut through it like the proverbial hot knife; or, hot piss through snow. They had had pissing contests.

His brother prided himself on the unusual length of his member. But beyond showing it off at any chosen point in time, there was little else his extra inches were good for.  It was his, the younger brother’s item that could shoot faster and further, much to the annoyance of the eldest sibling. These days, his power was less, much less. The years meant that he needed to visit more, but those visits were very far from torrential; drips were all that occurred, drips and a bad aim.

“Tonight, I piss for the gods!”

And he did. He pissed so long and hard that the covering of already hardening snow completely relented and gave up its sovereignty. He watched it with wonder.

“Praise be,” he announced as his waters continued to part the ground. “God is great!”

He decided to leave his own name for everyone to see. Not until he had finished did he realise that he had spelt out, G O D . He laughed at his mistake. He felt that he could laugh until he died and that felt good, very good indeed.

It was the first howl that stopped him in his tracks.

He hastily replaced himself and searched the scene for the source. Some way off a stealthy shadow watched him, but did not move. It was the man’s turn to move. He was too old to play such stupid games and so, he set himself for the journey back to the house.

He had travelled only a few steps when his feet were lost from under him. He fell helplessly and face-first into the snow. He was dazed. He reached around himself to get support and something touched his outstretched hand. It was there in the snow all along and he had walked past it. But now as he pulled the thing towards him, he recognised a hand, a very old hand.

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This time, the solitary howl was joined by several more.

For Dark Winter Nights 2

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Beyond his window was winter. It had finally arrived.

A long-awaited smile cracked beneath the surface of his leathered skin. He inhaled the cold air that had perpetrated beyond the pane of glass…at Last. 

“So, you have returned to me.”

The empty world gave no response. 

He watched the frozen landscape, and the moon, impaled on the highest peak. This was how it was meant to be.

Finally.

Then, the noise.

He knew that he couldn’t be dreaming because he never dreamt. He was pleased that he did not wander in the nocturnal world of flotsam. He had never read a newspaper nor had he read a book. If he ever allowed the truth to be told, he would have admitted to not being able to read. It was a skill that was beyond him and one that he really didn’t need. A book was paper and it could be burnt, but wood was better.

The noise was from outside. The one that woke him seemed to be distant, but the one that he now heard was much closer. It was close to the house.

A long time ago, in his father’s life, there had been wolves that roamed these mountains. They would pick off lambs in spring; move in groups to worry herdsmen with their charges. And every now and again, at certain junctures of brashness and bravery, they would even attack dairy cows. He had grown up fearing these creatures whilst wishing that he could be given the good fortune to encounter one, face to face, in the open, an even contest of skill and nerve.

There was scratching at the door.

In the room above the cellar’s stairs was his gun.

It had not been used since the dog. Tonight he reached for it, took a box of cartridges, loaded, then made his way to the door. Whatever had been making the noise stopped so suddenly that he heard te echo of the space into which it had gone. He stood for a long while before leaving the night ot itself. He told himself that it was probably a stray mutt from the village below or a tourist dog that had decided to stay on for the winter. None of them went hungry when the tourists were around , but as soon as the season was over they were like vagabonds and scavengers, raiding refuse and even sneaking into homes to steal what they could. Whatever pedigree they were, to him they were vermin. His hand caressed the gun and his finger stroked the trigger.

Alive, he thought, at last.

 

The scratching was getting louder and more frantic.

Whatever was out there wanted to come in. Perhaps the sudden snap in the temperature had caused the creature to search for shelter. Perhaps it could be running from some other; prey and predator. Either way, it would get a shock. The gun was still firmly in his hands, cradled, one might say. He placed his hand on the key and turned it slowly. In response, the scratching increased. The door was now being pushed with a force that he had not reckoned on and he almost stopped, a shudder of apprehension warning him of the unknown. He had climbed the high mountains, survived the worst of the storms when others had not, and had outlived all of those who thought they were his betters. As the frantic activity continued to escalate, he opened the door.

Something pushed hard from without. It was but a momentary force, but he felt it.

“I have a gun,” he warned, regardless of the sense in it. Then he pushed it shut again and turned the key. His old heart beat a manic rhythm and he felt something that he had not encountered for many, many years; fear. He waited and panted away the panic.

Minutes moved as he leant his shoulder against the wooden divide. The beating of his heart was joined by a throbbing pulse in his temples. An urge to shout, to scream defiance, to offload his firearm into the timber, all demanded action. but he resisted.

Time passed and his heart slowed. The throb in his temples was now only a dull reminder of what had gone and the pressure he was exerting on the door eased. There was no scratching, no sound above a vague wind falling down from the peaks.

“Nothing, you stupid old fool. Nothing,” he reassured himself. “It was only the wind that pushed the door. That and your own imagination.”

Yet, he had no imagination.

What he could do, what he should do, was to open the door once again and shoot whatever had caused him to be so afraid. He remembered someone, some time long ago, saying that there was ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’.  That was a good thing to say and that was something that he had remembered down the decades. Now the line came back to him and forced him to act.

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His hand reached out for the key once again. He forced it to be steady. He inhaled deeply and began to turn… 

 

Better Than Sex (Don’t Procrastinate).

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The little death is a translation from the French “la petite mort”, a popular reference for a sexual orgasm. The term has been broadly expanded to include specific instances of blacking out after orgasm and other supposed spiritual releases that come with orgasm.

Speculations to its origin include current connotations of the phrase, including:

* Greco-Roman belief that the oversecretion of bodily fluids would “dry out” one of the believed four humours, leading to death
*Islam’s reference to sleep
* Buddhist Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’s quote: “Life is nothing but a continuing dance of birth and death, a dance of change.” (Existence through many changes, “births and deaths”)

 

Before my father died, he asked me to buy him this book: 

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It’s about horse racing. My dad never knowingly rode a horse, perhaps he did in his dreams, but he never actually got astride one and let it canter down a field or furlong. The closest he ever came to this was when he would place a bet on others, professional jockeys, racing at the various meetings around the country.  Betting on horses was, for him, a release.

I have never been bitten by the betting bug. Okay, so I have but a few quid on a Grand National sweepstake but nothing else. My brother-in-law, who had lots of insider knowledge, once gave me the name of a ‘cert’ that had wonderfuly tempting odds and which would make me a fortune if I dared to back it. I didn’t and it lost.

My dad would occasionally win BIG. Nothing ridiculous, just a few hundred or maybe a thousand. He wasn’t ostentacious, never bragged, showed little emotion, and definitley wasn’t vainglorious, but he did win; he knew his stuff. If anybody were to be asked, however, who the big gambler in the family was, they would probably point to me.

I was the risk-taker, I gambled on life.

 

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Yup, you guessed it. That poor schmuck on the left is me.

Origin of schmuck

First recorded in 1890–95, schmuck is from the Yiddish word shmok (vulgar) literally, penis (of uncertain origin)
The Dice Man is seemingly an autobiography, narrated by a bored, clever New York psychiatrist, Luke Rhinehart. He is a nerd run mad. He decides that, in pursuit of ultimate freedom – or nihilism – he will make decisions using dice. He offers the dice options, and they choose for him. The dice tell him to rape his neighbour, but he fails because she wants him. The dice make him tell his patients what he thinks of them (my favourite dice decision).
Ultimately, the dice leads to downfall and death. But doesn’t everything?
I read this when I was in my late teens and it left an impression on me. I am only just coming to terms with the impact that my choice of reading had upon my embrionic id.
Anyway, the smart schmuck followed the dice. Some may argue that he only followed what his subconscience wished him to do. It was he, after all, who lay down the options for each of the dice numbers to follow. He devised the parameters of the game and he accepted the potential consequences.
After the novel’s publication there was a slow growth in its readership. Nevertheless, it is still in print today and has sold more than 2m copies.
Amongst those who have read it are Richard Branson (he of Virgin), who ‘diced’ as a way of breaking through a sort of capitalist conundrum. He did it for twenty-four hours because “it was too dangerous to carry on longer”. Others have used ‘dicing’ as a non-subjective, left-park way of acting. perhaps it liberates us from the fear of consequences because, if the dice rolls that way, we are certainly not to blame. It also adds a little zest to lives that may have become a little lacking in taste.

 

Schmuck is a Yiddish word for penis. Le petite mort is French for little death. Betting is claimed to be better than sex. the Greeks and Romans may have believed that too many orgasms dried you out. Whereas, Islam points to sleep.  Bhuddists take a more balanced view that tells us that in the great scheme of things (assuming there is a scheme), it doesn’t mean a thing. Life continues ragardless of what we do.

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George Cockcroft, the real Luke Rhinehart.

The Stand is an old friend.

I read it every five or six years. I go back to it in the same way one might go back to the place in which you grew up.

My affair with everything apocalyptical probably came from King; well some of it anyway. The landscape of my youth was clouded by the coming apocalypse. But it never came. There was the threat of nuclear war, Aids, over-population, and ISIS (so called), but it has never ended. Neither has my love of The Stand.

I picked up a copy of this book just before the weekend and started to read it once again. Some people never go back to books once they have read them. Some people never review a film once it has been watched. I do both. The mind-readers out there will tell you that it will be connected with my psychological hoarding, a need to never let go of the past. I believe this to be true, as this book testifies. For somebody who can launch into new experiences, whilst leaving behind old ones, I am a strange contradiction.  But there are artefacts that I treasure; books, books, books.

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The latest edition of The Stand has new chapters and some new characters. All of these are peripheral to the main events yet they work in a way to freshen up the novel for a new audience. Where King falls down a little is where there are obvious anachronisms that have been born out of temporal revision.

My favourite character, Larry Underwood, a musician about to make it big before Captain Trips seizes his stage. At that time Larry was mixing his tracks with Neil Diamond. Now, I am not one to put Neil Diamond down, but a new audience wouldn’t really know him. If they had heard of him, it would be in the same way that would have heard of somebody once called Noah. I have a student who goes by that name, but he hasn’t got an arc or a zoo. That to one side, the book gripped me once again and I spent huge swathes of the weekend lost in its many pages.

Once again, I was back to the time when I was eighteen, still wet behind the ears, hoping beyond reasonable hope that I would amount to something in life.  I was afflicted with that good old Jesus-Syndrome. Reading, The Stand is like reading me and about all that has happened during the time that I became what I am today.

 

My favourite characters in the book are Larry Underwood and Nick Andros. The latter is a youngish man who can’t speak nor hear. He is very special in the grand scheme of things. Larry, because he is a tragic figure who is haunted by his own doubtful character. He wants to be good but often does bad things. “You ain’t no good guy!” He hears from women, who would have been complete strangers if he hadn’t have slept with them. I like Larry because he is a little bit like I was when I was young, self-centred, hedonistic, and a dreamer. He wanted  to do the right thing in a world which was not right so, he just went along with it and carved out his own little stretch of land where he could hide from his troubles and the eyes of his critics.

 

Larry is an artist who has struggled to be heard properly. He hasn’t had the breaks and when one sashays his way it is blown away by a combination of genetic engineering and the end of days conducted by Randall Flag. Old Randy is the Devil in-definite-carnate. And poor old Larry, and the rest of the world, are swept away by this janitor from Hell. Larry is a guy who has always been good, at heart, but indifferent in actions. The last stand of good against evil is one in which he will play a major role, surprising himself and others with his bravery and selflessness. At the end of it all, Larry is a “good guy” but dies in the process. So, is this Jesus thing in my DNA or has it been placed there by the writers I worship?

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If I was a lawyer, I would possibly say that this particular case ought to go to litigation. Through their poetry and prose, these writers have led me all the way along a narrative that quite possibly would not have been written in the same the way that it has turned out. Or is it that I was always predisposed to this type of existence, and that I chose the literature that best reflected me?

 

Thanks goodness that I never liked Jane Austin – although with zombies it is a lovely treat.

 

The Summer Of 76…

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FOR ENGLAND AND MY MEMORIES, THAT WAS THE HOTTEST SUMMER THAT I CAN REMEMBER. IT REMAINS TALL AS STANDPIPES GUSHING FOUNTAINS OF MEMORIES INTO BUCKETS AND BOWLS.

The whole of the street would meet every morning and evening to quench their needs. The clear stuff was rationed to an hour during each of these times, but the queue chatted as if there was nothing odd about their gathering. They were collecting aqua vitae while the time ticked by.

That summer gave us the last blaze of our younger youth. My mates and I had reached the giddy heights of fourteen-years old. We were hungry for the attentions of the opposite sex, but the opposite sex was aware of this and stayed well away. As the eternal sunshine had driven off all but he continual swarms of ladybirds (rumour had it that they had become carnivores and were attacking humans rather than plants), we took to cycling.

Eddy Merckx was the then all-conquering cyclist from Belgium and he was threatening to win the Tour de France to add to his five previous titles. Eddy, like us, suffered from getting too sore in the saddle, so he pulled out of the race that year. We were at the age when heroes were to be followed and we all became Merckx disciples. Our day-long rides would always end with a bunch-sprint of sorts and each of us would run the commentary of,

“And Merckx, the unbeatable Belgium, takes the lead. The French are not happy (appy), but there he goes…”

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Sometimes there would be a touch of wheels, a scream of metal, and the inevitable grunts of despair as bikes would collide and riders would be off-loaded. Tarmac rash was common for us, but in 1976 the heat had worked itself upon the roads and had delivered melted and more forgiving surfaces for us to scrape across. Blood came freely yet it was blood that was the mark of sportsmen (boys) and that was a badge worth wearing.

As the summer wore on and our encounters with females became at thing of ancient-myth, our rides started to take on a more serious aspect. We cycled further, climbed bigger hills, raced faster. There was a hierarchy emerging and as the weeks went by a few of our group began to fall off the pace whilst finding other distractions to relieve their interests. Family holidays were kicking in for a number of my friends and I secretly envied them for the luxury of being able to go to places that were so very different from our homes. One of our number went to France, another to Mallorca, and another to Cornwall. My family didn’t take holidays so I leant my time to the task of turning myself into a future Tour winner.

In the other world, Bjorn Borg won the Wimbledon Men’s for the first time whilst Chris Evert won the Women’s. I immediately took up the two-handed style that Borg had used so effectively and started to grow my hair a little. We all, to a man and boy, fancied Chris Evert which had a negative affect upon our rapidly declining self-esteem. Never, ever would Chris Evert fancy us, so we kept on cycling (those that were not on holiday).

My friendship group was a rather wondrous collection of almost-fits. We were what would have been Grammar-school boys if Grammars had not been phased out. Instead, we all attended the local comprehensive and managed to muddle our way through without serious consequences to our lives or our learning. Being bright boys, we thought that that was enough. O Levels would later remind us of the need to work hard at our studies, but that was still in the future.

The gang was:

Col: excellent sportsman and girl-magnate and marksman;

Spec: excellent mate and one that only wore spectacles for about three months when he was 6;

Haguey: an excellent teller of all-tales and developer of odd songs (chew a catty-chew, yeh);

Danny: an excellent bow-in who joined our band even though he went to a Catholic school;

Biggy: an excellent tall kid who had a dry comedian’s delivery;

Woody: an excellent sportsman and holder of an excellent head of ginger hair;

Picky: an excellent eccentric whose intelligence could not be ignored whilst some of his odd behaviour had to be;

Evansy: a younger me.

If Stephen King had known us back then, he would have modelled his various Losers’ Gangs on us. We were nice kids who were neither bullies nor victims, scruffs nor toffs, cool nor uncool. As such, we were material for the dark master to build his stories upon. Amongst the things that we didn’t do that summer was to find a body in the woods, but our treks into the countryside were of the same epic quality as one of those adventures.

I remember one particular incident with a dog in the nearby countryside when Danny, Haguey and Picky were on the ride. I was past the driveway of an isolated house first. I had descended at speed and was then on the upward run of the dip. From out of the pages of a horror tale came this vicious, snarling mutt whose intention was to chase, bite, an impede any passing cyclists. At that moment, I was Merckx leading the pack and I was unaware of the incident behind until I stopped at the sound of crashing bikes.

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Bikes were heavier in those days which helped them to hurt more when you fell off them and they fell onto and into you. Collisions were more serious as nobody wore helmets. It would seem that most young people’s heads were already thick enough to absorb any impact. On the subject of bikes, people mainly rode Raleighs with the posher ones riding Carltons. I had a Raleigh Nimrod, Danny had a BSA (short for Birmingham Small Arms- gun metal), Picky had a Dawes (I think) and Rob had a Carlton as his dad was a Town and Country Planner and his mum was our History teacher. So, when I heard this sudden volley of barking, snapshot swearing, and then metal on metal, skin on road, more snapshot swearing, I realised that something was not right.

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THE DOG CONTINUED TO BARK, EVEN AFTER SOME STRAIGHTFORWARD INSTRUCTIONS TO GO FORTH AND MULTIPLY, BUT THE REST OF THE WORLD WAS SILENT APART FROM THE RATHER CALMING SOUND OF FREELY-SPINNING WHEELS THAT WERE NOW NOT IN CONTACT WITH THE EARTH… 

 

Stephen King On Writing

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If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

When I was in the eighth grade, I happened upon a paperback novel by Murray Leinster, a science fiction pulp writer who did most of his work during the forties and fifties, when magazines like Amazing Stories paid a penny a word. I had read other books by Mr. Leinster, enough to know that the quality of his writing was uneven. This particular tale, which was about mining in the asteroid belt, was one of his less successful efforts. Only that’s too kind. It was terrible, actually, a story populated by paper-thin characters and driven by outlandish plot developments. Worst of all (or so it seemed to me at the time), Leinster had fallen in love with the word zestful.

Characters watched the approach of ore-bearing asteroids with zestful smiles.Characters sat down to supper aboard their mining ship with zestful anticipation.Near the end of the book, the hero swept the large-breasted, blonde heroine into a zestful embrace. For me, it was the literary equivalent of a smallpox vaccination: I have never, so far as I know, used the word zestful in a novel or a story. God willing, I never will.

Asteroid Miners (which wasn’t the title, but that’s close enough) was an important book in my life as a reader. Almost everyone can remember losing his or her virginity, and most writers can remember the first book he/she put down thinking: I can do better than this. Hell, I am doing better than this!

What could be more encouraging to the struggling writer than to realize his/her work is unquestionably better than that of someone who actually got paid for his/her stuff? One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose — one novel like Asteroid Miners (or Valley of the Dolls, Flowers in the Attic, and The Bridges of Madison County, to name just a few) is worth a semester at a good writing school, even with the superstar guest lecturers thrown in.

Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling. A novel like The Grapes of Wrath may fill a new writer with feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy — “I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand” — but such feelings can also serve as a spur, goading the writer to work harder and aim higher. Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing — of being flattened, in fact — is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.