Friday, May 27, 2011


I met John Darnton when we were both fourteen years old, going on fifteen. It was our first year at Andover, a Junior Ivy League boarding school, and we were both assigned to the same small dormitory that housed six boys. Within a few weeks, John and I were roommates, and as our friendship grew (we remained roommates for three years) I learned that we had more in common than just our first names, our age (our birthdays were two days apart), and our ability to quote passages of The Catcher in the Rye as if it were scripture.

For one thing, we were both storytellers. Some of our stories made it to English classes, some were just adolescent fantasies concocted across the room after lights out. John wrote for the school newspaper (presaging a brilliant career in journalism) and was editor of the school’s literary magazine.

I also learned that John Darnton and I had in common two other character-forming glitches. For one thing, we both had never had the pleasure of knowing our fathers. His father, a New York Times correspondent, had been killed in the South Pacific during World War II. Mine had died about the same time, in the U.S.A., the victim of heart disease, which was less dramatic but just as deadly.

The other thing John Darnton and I had in common was our alcoholic mothers. I learned about his mother’s alcoholism by hearing an essay he wrote for English class our sophomore year, which described an AA meeting he and his brother had gone to with their recovering mom. I didn’t share my concern about my own mother’s drinking problem at that time, either because it embarrassed me or because I was still trying to fool myself.

After Andover, John Darnton went on to a distinguished career, toiling in the fields of the Word.  In his father’s footsteps, he worked for The New York Times, rising over  the years from copy boy to metropolitan editor and cultural news editor, by way of covering world-shaking events in Africa (protests in South Africa, the fall of Idi Amin, and other hair-raising adventures) and Europe. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his dare-devil coverage of the Solidarity Movement in Poland, during martial law and a crackdown on the press.

Darnton retired from the Times in 2005, but not before he had established himself as a fiction writer, publishing a sequence of thought-provoking, entertaining, and best-selling novels: Neanderthal, The Experiment, Mind Catcher, and The Darwin Conspiracy. In 2008 he published a satiric mystery, Black and White and Dead All Over, set in the world of the major New York metropolitan daily, which he doesn’t quite name The New York Times.

Meanwhile I had a minor-league literary career of my own, but nothing by comparison with John’s. I will skip over all that, except to touch down on my novel Elephant Lake, published earlier this year on Kindle and Nook, which zeroes in on the tenth summer of a boy whose widowed mother is a depressed alcoholic who’s trying to write a book about her late husband. The boy, Davy, tries to find out from his mother just what sort of person his father was, but she won’t talk to him about that. Curiously—I’d like to think it was unintentional and coincidental, but I’m willing to plead guilty to the kind of identity theft most fiction writers indulge in—my Davy’s father had been a war correspondent, killed during World War II in the South Pacific.

My novel, Elephant Lake, was written and epublished before I had the great pleasure of reading John Darnton’s remarkable book Almost a Family. In his honest, self-baring, and dramatic memoir, John digs, digs, digs through the past, through correspondence and family gossip and newspaper clippings in search of the man who was remembered so fondly by those who still remembered him, as a witty, debonair, kind, adventurous man—as well as a star reporter. What John found was that his father, Barney Darnton, also had his flaws. He was a hard-drinking, hard-smoking ladies’ man. He emerges from the research as a real man, if perhaps a bit larger than life, and a man his son would have enjoyed trading wisecracks with.

John also devotes much of his book to the harrowing tale of his mother’s downward spiral into alcoholism. This was no mere drinking problem, this was a critical disease. It got so that Eleanor Darnton could not hold a job, could barely hold a conversation with her sons, and was reduced to selling her furniture in order to pay the rent, put food on the table, and buy more liquor. Anyone who had an alcoholic parent will relate to this tale, except that John’s experience was more frightening than most. Her recovery, therefore, was a just-in-time act of huge courage and strength.

Almost a Family, then, is a study of childhood without traditional parents, and a search for whatever identity one might have inherited from a father one never knew. It reads like a well-crafted mystery, because Darnton has sprinkled the memoir with clues, and one question after another is answered by a surprise.

Unlike the rave reviews in Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and many others, I will  not tell you the story in enough detail to ruin the surprises. I will say this, though, from personal experience: a boy’s (and a man’s) quest to learn the identity of his father—let’s call it the Telemachus Complex—is a very real concern for many. So is the plight of a boy’s coming to terms with, and coping with, his mother’s alcoholism, a plight that haunts long after the boy has become a man.

John Darnton’s Almost a Family is a bookful of this rich material, written by a skilled reporter and a master storyteller.

Note: For more information about Almost a Family, see John Darnton’s website:
For more information about my novel Elephant Lake, mentioned above, see my website,, or home in on

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Do I Teach Creative Writing?

Easy question, easy answer: Sure I do. The harder question is: Can I teach creative writing? Can creative writing be taught?

I hear the question often. Prospective students—new writers, but also seasoned pros—ask me. I even ask myself in the middle of the night. Can I teach creative writing?

Well, I do have some favorite rules and tools of structure and style. From a lifetime of editing and publishing, I know that some creative writing works (and plays) better than other writing, and there are consistent, time-honored reasons for why this is. I happen to call those reasons “rules.” Such as? Write what you know (but let your imagination soar). Show ’em, don’t tell ’em. The importance of story, which means the importance of choice, change, and consequence; characters, conflict, and climax. These techniques (and many others) work, and I love to spread the word about them.

We can call that teaching, I suppose, but…

In any class I’ve ever taught, much if not most of the real learning doesn’t happen when I’m talking. That’s why I always save at least half of every class period for constructive read-and-critique.

Magic happens when writers read to one another. Writing is, after all, a means of communication, and the creative act isn’t really complete until the writer reaches an audience with his or her words. That’s why writing groups are so important, why swapping stories with other writers is so fulfilling, why so many writers want to publish their work. An audience is what makes all those solitary hours in front of a computer screen or a blank piece of paper pay off.

But it’s not just the pleasure of sharing your own work and hearing your own voice. It’s a way to develop and improve that “voice,” to hone that writing style that is all your own. By hearing honest, supportive feedback from your peers, you’ll learn what’s wonderful in your voice and your imagination, and also you’ll pick up tips and suggestions on how to make your writing even stronger.

There’s more. You’ll learn the fine and magic art of writing by listening to other writers read their words as well. And you’ll learn from the guided discussion that follows every reading, discussion that always centers on what makes the writing good, and what could make it even better.

And that’s not all. You’ll be entertained royally. Writing is all about people, after all, and people are there to move you with laughter and tears, with stories of grabbing suspense or gentle love. You’ll be an active part of every story that’s discussed, whether you join in the discussion or not. The enthusiasm for the craft of writing is infectious. Get ready, because…

It will be fun. You will be inspired. So will your teacher.

So is that teaching? Frankly, I don’t know. I do know that it’s learning. I know it, because I’ve learned something—a lot, in fact—from every creative writing class I’ve ever taught.

Friday, May 13, 2011


I’d like to put in a plug for a monthly print magazine I’ve been subscribing to for a couple of years and have been contributing essays to for the past year. Black Lamb, published monthly from San Leandro, California, has a tabloid format. It’s printed on good offset paper and is elegantly designed. It is illustrated with clip-art and well-chosen photographs. It carries no advertising, but stays alive on the strength of subscriptions. A year’s subscription costs $15, which, given the quality of the writing, may be the best bargain you’ll find these days in print periodical literature.

I was introduced to this fine rag by my friend Toby Tompkins, a highly talented writer. Toby’s essays—wise, witty, peppered with laughs and rants and fine storytelling—are worth the price of the magazine, but he’s only one of a stable of worthy wordsmiths associated with Black Lamb. One regular contributor lives in Milan, one is a mortician, one is a violin player, one or two are novelists, one is a former prison inmate, one is wandering around Turkey, and so on.

Black Lamb is edited by Terry Ross. I’ve never met Terry in person, but I consider him a fount of literary lore. He fills his magazine with literary history, gossip, and plugs. He and I have swapped recommendations for favorite books; from him I learned of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by Gerald Basil Edwards, and The Book of Bebb, by Frederick Buechner, both giant doorstop novels, and both of which I recommend emphatically. Terry is a gentle editor, an encourager of good writing, a genuine, generous man of letters. (I confess that it also gives me pleasure to reflect that I have an editor named Mr. Ross. So did James Thurber and Dorothy Parker, once upon a time.)

Every other issue of Black Lamb is a “theme issue.” Since I’ve been contributing essays to the magazine, I’ve written on subjects I might otherwise have bypassed: Crime, School, Food, Men, Women, Turning Points, Family, and a couple of Book Reviews.

Most of my articles for the magazine are about turning points (in fact most narrative writing, I believe, is about turning points). As a teacher of autobiography and memoir writing, I’ve preached the value of finding the moments of story in our lives, and Terry Ross and Black Lamb have given me a reason to practice what I preach.

Other regular writers provide essays about politics (some of them inflammatory, from both sides of the aisle), humor, food, horseback riding, travel, death (one regular column is titled “All Men are Cremated Equal”), and profiles of past celebrities. There is an annual (summer) issue devoted to book reviews. Regular monthly features include a word puzzle, a literary quiz, a literary sampler, a list of literary giants born in that month, a bridge column, an advice column, and a recipe for lamb.

At the beginning of this post I made it clear that Black Lamb is a print publication. Thank goodness for that, say I, who still enjoy reading a magazine in an armchair, and on paper. But to learn more about this fine publication, you also can visit its website and get a sample of what it offers:

JOHN'S author home page:
amazon author page:

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Code Name: Geronimo

Some months ago I established a "Google Alert" for the words "Geronimo's Skull," which informs me when those two words come up on the web. The purpose was to find a way to network and promote my novel, GERONIMO'S SKULL, now that it's available on Kindle and Nook. I got occasional notices, because it's a subject that will never go away (the robbing of Geronimo's grave by a bunch of Yalie pranksters), but there was no great flurry until the past few days. 

Then there was a bonanza. The reason: our hunting party that took out Osama bin Laden was named "Geronimo." The old story about the Skull & Bones gang and their midnight grave-robbing is now all over the place, tying the two events together with flimsy string.

I'm somewhat embarrassed by this surprise publicity. Yes, I admit I'm exploiting the coincidence at this very moment, but I do so with a red face. (Is that a Freudian slip or what?) Native Americans are up in arms about this exploitation of the great Apache warrior's name. And if there's any intent to equate Geronimo with Osama bin Laden, the Indians have every right to be mad as hell.

But if the use of the word "Geronimo" simply refers to the battle cry that American soldiers have used since WWII and perhaps before that, then it's more acceptable. Maybe that's giving Geronimo some due credit for the bravery he always displayed.

Curiously, there is one legend (or perhaps historical truth) that Geronimo got his name in battle, but it was a band of Mexican soldiers, under attack by the Apaches, who cried out "Geronimo!" because they were terrified and were appealing to their patron saint (also known as St. Jerome).