How to Play a Blue Guitar: A Manifesto

On a lark I picked up my book How to Play a Blue Guitar yesterday morning and realized (again) that it’s a subversive little book in disguise. Maybe I should have called it Son (or Daughter) of Refuse to be Afraid, because it is a gentle nudge to live a kinder, gentler, more fearless life.

In between the short stories, and even threading through those stories, are a call to stand up against the emerging dictatorship of The Ones Who Think We’re Theirs, who would crush the individual under an avalanche of collective fear.

I had a notion to rename it or at least change the subtitle from the innocuous “Stories, Poems & Reflections” to “A Manifesto” or something that cries out “peace, love, fear not.” Instead I decided to leave the book in its disguise, to let it be quietly found by those who need it — and of course to occasionally point the way like this.

Blue Guitar is packaged like a record album. There are no references anywhere to my other books, there’s a track list on the back cover, nothing but music between the covers. I think it works.

Published impulsively in the early weeks of the 2020 house arrest, it has more of me in it than I realized at the time, from my short stories and flash fiction to my various manifestos — the sudden “I defy you” in “Today is the Day,” the above-linked “The Ones Who Think We’re Theirs,” the Tenets of Common Wealth — it’s a little book that says, Look here, this is me, I am this guy, try this out for size.

Renaming it How to Play a Blue Guitar: A Manifesto would change nothing about the inside but proclaim itself dangerous. Nah, I think I’ll let it be.

P.S. If How to Play a Blue Guitar is a two-record set, then Full is my triple album, or three albums released in the same package. But that’s a thought for another day.

By definition

Once I believed Thursday was the most tiresome day of the week — not quite Friday, and well distanced from Monday.

Somewhere along the line I stumbled on the obvious truism that every day is what you decide to make of it.

I wrote this on a Thursday, and so it is by definition a tiresome message …

… if you accept the definition in the first sentence.

Do you?

A list or two

“Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for,” said Mr. Bradbury.

Something I love: I love sunny days with nothing to do – walking along water – my memories of Willow The Best Dog There Was – Ray Bradbury books, Terry Pratchett books, Lucy Maud Montgomery books, the Bosch books and TV show, Carol Jean Townsend, exploration stories (space, time, dimensions)(Hey! That’s why Jeep Thompson will be such fun). I love making stuff up out of thin air – I love telling people about obscure fun stuff I’ve found (my first fanzine article was about The Imp by Stan Lee) –

Something I love: A twist of a familiar saying. An image painted with words. An unexpected turn of phrase that makes me laugh. A story twist I didn’t see coming but that fits what came before and the tumblers fall into place.

Something I love: Old stuff, unearthed and in the sunshine again. Imagining when it was new.

The world of instant books

Last week I wrote a series of blog posts about my “rules for writing.” You guys seemed to like them, so I packaged them all together in a mini ebook.

You remember:

  1. Show up every day.
  2. Have fun.
  3. Write what you love.
  4. Be silly sometimes.
  5. Don’t think.

I’m not here to sell you on something you just read last week and can click for free — although if you want to send 3 bucks my way and have those posts all in one place, I would not want to dissuafe you.

I just want to sit for a moment and say, isn’t this a grand world we live in, where anyone can write a short book or a medium book or a long book and ship it almost instantly? I mean, it went live on Amazon three hours after I had the idea for the thing.

There was a time when it was years between getting the idea for a book and holding it in your hands. Some of them still take that long, and some of them don’t.

This is one of the latter.

In which I beat the odds

I had a great time Saturday night at OtherWorld Books and More in Sturgeon Bay, the first gig in my not-exactly-a-book-tour since publishing Full: Rockets, Bells & Poetry earlier this summer. A rainstorm canceled the sidewalk sale at the last minute, but the folks at Park Place mini-mall had fun bringing the event indoors.

Margaret Magle and her husband, David, have created an otherworldly mix of new and used books, gaming supplies, comic books and even train sets and other toys that takes up about a half-dozen units of the mall, which David can tell you was a theater in the early 20th century before being converted into a mall, then offices, then headquarters of the Peterson Builders shipbuilding company, and then back into a mall recently after standing empty for about 15 years after PBI folded up its tents.

The slow traffic gave me a chance to explore the store, and although I don’t really collect old comics anymore, I couldn’t resist a quick exploration of the wall of comics boxes in the back. More or less at random, I started thumbing through a box that had some old Adventure Comics from the 1960s in front — that was “my” era.

A few books in, I found a copy of Dynamo #3. What are the odds?

Dynamo was the lead hero in a superhero series called T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, published by an independent publisher called Tower Comics in the late 1960s. Each of the agents was given possession of a device that gave them superpowers. I loved Tower in part because I like an underdog, and they were entering a market then dominated by DC Comics and an upstart disruptor called Marvel Comics. Tower had tremendous art by the likes of Wally Wood and Steve Ditko, among many notable comic book artists of the era.

Although their distribution was spotty, I managed to buy almost all of the original Tower Comics at the stands, beginning with T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1, which had a striking Wally Wood cover that drew me in right away. After a year or so, they were successful enough to spin off some of the characters in their own titles, including Dynamo.

Here’s why I said “What are the odds?” When I was 13, I wrote a letter to Tower Comics critiquing Dynamo #1. A few months later a friend told me I had a letter published in Dynamo #3. Unlike Marvel Comics, Tower didn’t have a Fabulous Flo who sent a postcard to kids whose letters were going to be published, so it was a surprise. I can’t remember if I was ever able to find and buy Dynamo #3, although I do remember seeing my letter somewhere along the way.

So what are the odds that I would accept the invitation to sit and sign books at OtherWorlds, the first time I ever ventured out of my turtle shell to appear as a guest author anywhere, that the rain would give me a chance to wander around the store, that I would decide to look through a comic box even though I don’t really collect these days, and that of the several dozen boxes of comics to browse through, I would pick the box that contained a comic book with my letter in it?

I had a small handful of letters printed in comics back then — my earliest published work! — and of those Dynamo #3 is probably the rarest book. (My most proud accomplishment among them is having my excerpt picked as the lead-off to the Amazing Spider-Man #100 letters column — check it out, I’ll wait.) And I managed to find it in the first box I browsed.

When I told Red this story, she sent me back into the night to buy a lottery ticket. Sadly, I had apparently used up almost all of my luck for that day, although I did win my dollar back.

In a perfect world

In a perfect world I — am right here, sitting amid the clocks in the morning quiet, coaxing my hand from left to right and dropping images and cryptic symbols onto the page that represent the words coursing through my head.

Will future archaeologists look this page over and say, “Aha! 21st century English, we’ll need to find an expert to read this,” or will it make absolutely no common sense to them? “Markings in a sheaf full of thin materials, what practical use did this object have all those centuries ago?”

And where will my dust be scattered then? Up from the ashes and turned to ash.

Let’s start over, shall we?

In a perfect word I am right here, sitting amid the clocks in the morning quiet, dropping images in cryptic symbols across the page. Every act of every moment of my life led me into this very chair at this very moment, when I realized this has been a pretty good life. I’ve always had something to eat (witness the belly), and while I’ve never been a superb physical specimen, I’ve been healthy almost all of the time for 68 years five months and two weeks.

Page turning now.

Come on now, I know I left it in here somewhere … Oh! Hi — Have you ever turned a page and completely lost your train of thought — what was I just thinking, it seemed important a moment ago and now it’s not even on my mind, just a lingering sense of whatever it is I’m feeling?

My, it’s a peaceful quiet morning, though, except for the occasional screaming vehicle lifting its racing tires across the asphalt up the hill. We’re down here, 40 feet from the old highway and maybe 100 feet from the new, with the biggest windows in the back, facing the trees and the water beyond. Maybe it would be perfect if there wasn’t so much traffic, but the sound is background fuzz by now, these nine years after we began to settle in.

It really is a beautiful space of this big old world, a comfortable place to gather our earthly possessions to make our own. It’s as perfect a world as two mortals can manage, in my humblest opinion, and by golly, I think I’m a happy guy. What do you know about that?