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My Books

This is the post excerpt.

I have been writing since I was six years old. I now have four novels and seventeen stories in print. Adelaide Books in New York will publish my latest novel, Secretocracy, early in 2020.

My first published book, Friendly Casualties, was a novel in short stories derived from experiences in the 13 years I trundled between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine combat units fighting in South Vietnam. The first half of the book is a series of short stories in which characters from one story reappear in another. The second half is a novella that draws together all the preceding tales.

No-Accounts came from my years of caring for AIDS patients. It tells the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. I got into helping men with AIDS to help me cope with the horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. When I was with my patients, men suffering more than I was, my unbearable memories went dormant.

Next came The Trion Syndrome. It begins with the Greek Trion legend about a demigod so brutal to the vanquished that the gods sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to drown him. The protagonist, Dave Bell, is haunted by half-remembered visions of the war in Vietnam. At his lowest point, he recalls that he killed a child. Dave considers suicide, but a young man appears and helps him. It is his illegitimate son, a child he had tried to kill through abortion, who now helps him find his way home.

Last of the Annamese was published in March 2017. I used this novel to confront my memories of the fall of Saigon from which I escaped under fire. Once again, the image of the boy-child recurs, as the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine, grieves over the loss of his son, killed in combat in Vietnam. He returns to Vietnam as a civilian intelligence analyst after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and encounters Vietnamese boys whom he tries to save during the conflagration.

Secretocracy tells the story of an federal intelligence budgeteer persecuted by the current administration because he refuses to approve finds for an illegal operation.

 

The Gift and Craftsmanship (2)

I do a presentation on fiction craftsmanship, sometimes called technique. It’s the most boring of my presentations. It addresses the mundane, meticulous, annoyingly trivial writing practices that need to be mastered to persuade an editor or publisher to accept one’s work. In that course, I use the following quote:

“Regardless of how captivating your stories are, unless your submissions have correct formatting, your work will not be accepted by a publisher. Proper presentation is key to gaining interest from editors and agents, proving that you are both serious enough to abide by professional guidelines and respectful of both the editor’s and agent’s time taken to review your work.” —Tethered by Letters.

The writer of those words was addressing only formatting, but the advice applies to the whole of craftsmanship: without it, forget getting published.

Fiction craftsmanship, as I apply the term, includes all the pedestrian practices needed to see one’s work in print. They include formatting, copy editing, words and structure, and dialogue.

Some writers scorn craftsmanship, asserting that doing things by the book will not lead to good writing, which depends on creativity. They’re right. But without craftsmanship, a written piece will never be accepted for publication.

Other writers depend on craftsmanship to the exclusion of creativity. They remind me of singers who sing notes, not music.

Both creativity and craftsmanship are required to produce publishable writing. Creativity is innate; it can’t be learned. But craftsmanship is a learnable skill. The best writers are those blessed with abundant creativity who have done the hard work of learning their trade by mastering craftsmanship.

In short, the gift—the inborn genius for beautiful writing—isn’t requisite for getting into print. But craftsmanship is. The lesson for writers: No matter how talented you are, you still have to do the hard work of mastering craft to get published.

The Gift and Craftsmanship

Over the years, I’ve known and worked with perhaps a hundred writers, most of them successful to one degree or another. Of those, maybe three have what I call “the gift.” By that I mean the inborn genius for knowing how to put words together to create beauty. Two of those three are as yet unpublished. It’s because they haven’t mastered the craft. They haven’t inculcated into themselves the mechanics of fiction writing.

Until they do, their work won’t see the light of day in print.

Most published prose writers I read don’t possess the gift. Their writing is good, well thought through, well crafted. But it lacks the magic that innate understanding of English makes possible. What that tells me is that the gift is not required to be a successful writer. It’s more important in fiction, which is an art form, than it is in nonfiction. And yet I stumble across journalists who possess it. E.J. Dionne is one.

The greatest fiction writers in English all were blessed with the gift. Hemingway is one example. His ability shape sentences and paragraphs with the simplest, briefest strokes is still incomparable even today. Others with that intrinsic knowledge, it seems to me, are F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ian McEwan, and John Steinbeck. Another is Thomas Mann, but you really need to read his work in German to appreciate his genius. Most translations I’ve read don’t do him justice. In the same category is Gustave Flaubert.

I’m not a poet and don’t really understand how to write poetry, but my guess is that most successful poets are endowed with the gift. They seem to know instinctively how to put the fewest words together to create both meaning and beauty. I bow before them.

For all that, the gift is not enough to assure success in writing. In fact, it isn’t even necessary. The majority of writers lack it. What is required is craftsmanship.

More tomorrow.

The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (5)

But what distinguishes Chinese is its writing system, the characters. Two romanization systems have developed to express Chinese words phonetically. One is the Wade-Giles, invented in the west; the other is Hanyu Pinyin which the Chinese themselves created. Neither captures the richness of Chinese characters.

Characters consist of two elements, the radical and the phonetic. The radical suggests the meaning, the phonetic hints at the pronunciation. Chinese has 214 radicals varying from one to seven written strokes required to create them. Phonetics are limitless.

The Chinese communist government, early in its history, revised the Chinese writing system by simplifying the characters. The result is an easier system far less rich in history and meaning.

When I was studying Chinese, I spent countless hours practicing the inscribing of characters. The result was a crude competence in what is really an art form. Proper writing of characters is done with a small pointed paint brush and thick black ink that determines thickness or thinness of lines by the amount of pressure applied. The Chinese spend years perfecting their writing. Compare that with Americans, many of whom today have spent so little time on handwriting that they prefer printing to penmanship. We Americans, myself included, these days do all our writing on keyboards. As a child I was schooled in the Palmer method of hand writing. These days, I’m told, penmanship is no longer taught in schools.

In sum, much of what I learned from the study of Asian languages was the emphasis not on mathematical logic but on aesthetics—the beauty of life and people combined with an existence based on human relationships. In Chinese all that is expressed in a writing system that is, in itself, an art.

The learning of other languages, especially Asian ones, has immensely enriched my writing. It has greatly enlarged my understanding of how people think and act and the values they hold. It allowed me, for example, to create two diametrically opposed characters in Last of the Annamese, the American Chuck and the Vietnamese Thanh. The writing I used in sections of the book devoted to these very different people reflected my sense of them. Chuck’s texts are practical, down to earth. Thanh’s are serene and poetic.

Only through the knowledge of languages was any of that possible.

The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (4)

The profound differences in human thinking between western languages on the one hand and Vietnamese and Chinese on the other taught me to expand my own ability to think. More important, they enhanced my ability to write. As shades of meaning and nuance became clearer, I learned how to express them in English.

I wrote earlier in this blog about one of my favorite illustrations of how I learned: “One example of Asian language reasoning came to me when I was studying classical Chinese. In the text I was trying to translate were three characters, those for ‘he,’ ‘mountain,’ and ‘treasure.’ I couldn’t figure out what was meant. My teacher reminded me that in Chinese a word can function as any part of speech, and I was approaching that passage as if the second two characters were both nouns. The second of the three, ‘mountain,’ here was used as an action word. What the text meant was “He mountained the treasure,” that is, he piled it up so high it made a mountain.”

The underlying logic of western languages tends toward the mathematical. Various aspects of the past and future are clearly delineated. The distinction between what is true and not true is sharp.

In Asian languages I have studied, stress is less on facticity and more on relationships which define people and things. The difference between past and future is deemphasized and often not expressed. The discrepancy between what is and what is not is less clear. Much of the emphasis, particularly in the classical forms, is on beauty and the poetry inherent in expression.

More tomorrow

The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (3)

So much for the woes. The joys greatly outweigh them.

One pleasure is understanding the roots and sources of English words. First of all, English and German are closely related, particularly in structure and grammar. So often I see the implications of an English expression by knowing its German equivalent. The same is true with French which has influenced English far more than generally understood.

A second pleasure is insight into the incomparable richness of English. It is far and away the most variegated language I know. In structure and vocabulary it is endlessly nuanced. Compare the slight difference in implication between “Now I can go” and “I can go now.” Because I am a writer, I am deeply grateful for the luxuriance of English.

But the greatest joy in knowing multiple languages is the inherent understanding of human thinking they impart. When I studied French and Italian as a child, I was struck by the linguistic logic that underpinned them. When I got to German, I found a very different way of thinking.

The biggest surprise came with Asian languages. Vietnamese and Chinese lack the standard features of western languages. They have no conjugations or declensions. Any word can, in principle, act as any part of speech. Word order and context are paramount.

In Vietnamese, the grammatical first, second, and third persons don’t exist. In the place of pronouns, the Vietnamese use a variety of words that purvey the relationship between the speaker, those spoken to, and others. In formal language, tôi (slave) is used for the first person, “I,” and ông, , or (literally, grandfather, grandmother, and aunt) stand for the second person, “you,” depending on whether the person addressed is a man, a married woman, or an unmarried woman. At the less formal level, the variety is endless.

Both Chinese and Vietnamese depend on tones, that is, verbal inflection, to convey meaning. Vietnamese has six tones; various dialects of Chinese have four to seven tones. The best demonstration of a tone that I know of in English is to compare “Are you going home?” with “I’m going home.” “Home” in the first sentence has the equivalent of a rising tone. “Home” in the second sentence has a falling tone.

More tomorrow.

The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist (2)

Being multilingual isn’t all joy. I am consistently annoyed that we Americans make no effort to learn to pronounce correctly words and names from other languages. Other Americans express wonder at my linguistic ability, universally declaiming that they have no talent for languages. But in most other nations of the world, learning different languages is necessary and considered ordinary. In Switzerland, for example, everyone speaks French, German, and Italian. And in most other countries I’ve visited, knowledge of American English is commonplace. I often get the impression that we Americans consider our language superior, other languages inferior, and fully expect other nationalities to learn English.

Equally annoying, as I age, I tend to confuse the languages I know. Vietnamese and Chinese are somewhat similar in underlying logic and share vocabulary. Too often I reach for a term in one language and come up with the word in the other. Spanish and Italian are closely related languages. With irritating frequency, I mix them up.

And every once in a while, I can’t remember the English word for something, but the equivalent in another language presents itself. And since I’ve trained myself to think in other languages, I occasionally substitute a foreign term for English in conversation. It’s more than annoying. It’s embarrassing.

Finally, as my hearing gets worse, I can’t hear what other speakers are saying. During the fall of Saigon, I suffered ear damage due to the shelling of my office. I’ve worn hearing aids ever since. But now, even with the aids in, I sometimes can’t hear what people are saying. Years ago, I taught myself to read lips. I was chagrined to discover I could do that in English but not in any other language. So these days, I more and more avoid speaking other languages.

More tomorrow.

The Woes and Joys of Being a Linguist

I have been a writer since I was six years old. At the same age, I developed a fascination for opera. I discovered that the works that most interested me were not in English. So I set out to learn French and Italian.

At the time it didn’t seem at all odd to me for a child be teaching himself another language. My mother was an alcoholic, my father in prison. I was forced to take care of myself. I quickly learned to become self-reliant. Learning other languages seemed like an ordinary thing to do.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I have a distinct flare for languages. I learn them quickly, and I thoroughly enjoy the process. In high school I had four years of Latin. In college, I studied German, among other things. After I graduated, I enlisted in the army to study Chinese at the Army Language School. The army assigned me to study Vietnamese instead. When I graduated, I was sent to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. I enrolled at Georgetown University in the District of Columbia to study Chinese. By the time my army enlistment was complete, I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. NSA hired me and sent to Vietnam for the first time in 1962.

In other words, I became a linguist. I use the term not to mean one who studies the nature of language and how it works, but as one who speaks multiple languages.

After I retired from NSA, it occurred to me that I didn’t know the most commonly spoken foreign language in the U.S., namely Spanish. So I enrolled at the Howard County Community College for Spanish.

These days, as I’m getting older and the brain doesn’t function with the alacrity it once did, and my opportunities to speak the languages I know are fewer, my competence is declining. Vietnamese remains my strongest language. I spoke it constantly for thirteen years. The others are fading.

More tomorrow.