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Cocktail Hour

Immortal Freemasonry Explained

categories: Cocktail Hour

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keats          It was Keats who coined the highfalutin phrase “immortal freemasonry.” What it means in simple English is this: dead writers are alive to us.


I have no idea why this idea, of connections and literary lineage, kept weaving through my dreams last night. I am in LA at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference, an event where my brain is usually at its soggiest, and my dream life is rarely so highbrow. But last night I couldn’t stop thinking, or sleep-thinking, about teachers and students and the way we pass things down over the generations.


Maybe this had to do with reading about my former student Carson Vaughan’s encounter with Jim Harrison before he died. (Nina and I were lucky enough to have a similar encounter with John Updike not long before he died.) Or maybe it has to do with the fact that later today at a ceremony at our school a friend is going to quote from a T.S.Eliot poem I suggested about the way the past is present.


But back to the definition. The idea is that writers are “freemasons,” part of a secret society, and that membership in that society doesn’t end just because you are dead. This can be as simple as picking up a dead writer’s book. Inert print becomes something else when another mind revives it. For me a perfect example is the liveliness of Montaigne, despite being 500 years dead, and I have recently been fond of quoting Emerson’s line about him: “Cut his sentences and they bleed.” Continue reading →

Publication Day: Where’s my Marching Band?

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smallteachingWhen I was a child, my father’s best friend hired a marching band to show up at our house on my mother’s birthday one year.  This was one in a series of outlandish birthday events he arranged for her, but it remains the most memorable in my mind, seeing that band marching up our street with the neighbors wondering in disbelief whether they had forgotten to mark some holiday or parade on our calendar.



That event left such a permanent mark on me that I still consider the arrival of a marching band as the ideal way to celebrate a momentous event in one’s life—which, in my case these days, takes the form of the publication of a new book.  Each time one of my books has been published, I sit around the house expectantly all day secretly hoping that a marching band will appear around the corner at any moment, the leader carrying a box of my author copies, neighbors standing agog in their driveways, my family smiling and proud.


marching band

It hasn’t happened yet.


The publication day for my newest book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, came and went in mid-March without so much as an oboist serenading me from the driveway.  But even though that has Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: “Innocents and Others,” by Dana Spiotta

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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The tumultuous ’60s and their aftermath were occasion for a seismic cultural shift, a ‘subversion of the dominant paradigm,’ in the parlance of the times. Few novels have come close to capturing the mercurial complexity and staying power of this period.  Roth’s American Pastoral nibbled at the edges, while Susan Choi’s American Woman offered a fascinating glimpse of the radical left… and then there was Eat the Document, a haunting National Book Award nominee by Dana Spiotta, a tale of two radical survivors of the chaos of those times whose lives intersect again, years later, after they have re-assimilated into mainstream culture… as though that were possible. Continue reading →

Table for Two: Debora Black talks with Steve Almond about Football, Hate Mail, Life, and Art

categories: Cocktail Hour / Table For Two: Interviews

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Steve Almond football

Debora: Steve you’re everywhere—The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The New York Times Magazine’s Riff, The Rumpus online magazine, and you host the Dear Sugar podcasts with Cheryl Strayed. You are into journalism, fiction, life advice, and politics. You are Football, candy, rock and roll, hate letters, open letters, writing strategies, and book reviews. What is your mission as a writer, what impulses drive your work?

Steve: Oh, I’m like the rest of you suckers. I have this persistent dream that I’ll build a bridge of love to the rest of the species. For the most part, I chase my obsessions down. Continue reading →

Bad Advice Wednesday: Don’t Believe What You Think

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour

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Actual photograph

Actual photograph of Jesus dancing with the Disney kids

A great place for a personal essay to start is with a long-cherished belief.  Like that vitamin C helps colds, or that Jesus wasn’t married, or that the ocean is too vast to harm, or that such-and-such a writer is great or horrible, or that such-and-such type of music is boring, or that such-and-such city sucks.  And on and on. Continue reading →

Lundgren’s Lounge: “The Ancient Minstrel,” by Jim Harrison

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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ca. 2004 --- Jim Harrison --- Image by © R¸dy Waks /Corbis Outline

During a lifetime of obsessive reading, there are certain authors whose new work merits an immediate trip to the bookstore for a hardcover copy… Jim Harrison is on that short list and now graces us with a new collection, The Ancient Minstrel. The trilogy of novellas is deeply, richly satisfying in a manner that only Harrison can conjure.

Continue reading →

Bad Advice Wednesday: Avoid Literary Postpartum Depression

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vintage manuscriptSo for weeks, months, maybe years you have been pushing toward the end of the book you are writing. It has been your main goal, your driving purpose. Not a few times each day you fantasize about being done.  What could be better?  It sounds like heaven.


And this morning, miracle of miracle, you have finally finished. You’re done!  Maybe you will drink some  champagne and tell some people and try to make an occasion of it. But maybe you also feel, instead of elation, a kind of depression setting in. Immediately. What the hell is this?


What is the root of this strange depression? It is emptiness. It turns out that all this time, even when you were griping about it and dreaming of the end, this book was keeping you full. And while you thought there was nothing you wanted more than to be done with the book, without it your life feels empty.  The  book has filled  up your days, even if you only work on a it for a couple of hours in the morning. And even if you don’t know you are, you are Continue reading →

Paperback Writer

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The Paperback is due out in the world on March 14 (Birthday eve). Got some readings coming up in Boston (March 8: Emerald Conservancy with Dan Driscoll/March10: Waltham Land Trust with Dan also), Tucson (March 12: Tucson Festival of Books), California (April 1:Book Passage in Corte Madera /April3: Henry Miller Library in Big Sur).

pperback cover051


Please Give to the Jason Bradford Memorial Fund!

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Jason Bradford

Please give to the Jason Bradford Memorial Fund, which will help his family with final expenses [only two more days!]

Click HERE to go to the  donation site.


Poet and teacher Jason Alexander Bradford, age 28, of Center Point, IA passed away on Tuesday, January 19, 2016, at New Hanover Regional Medical Center after a lifelong battle with Muscular Dystrophy. Continue reading →