Whitesnake and Carhartt’s

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Poets have a tendency to play hard to get, in the literary sense. They speak in riddles, only to gripe about dense readers who misunderstand them. Or worse yet, they tire of explaining the very lines they themselves constructed. There’s really no placating them.

I was working on deciphering just such a poet’s verse when Jack interrupted my thoughts by abruptly turning the stereo dial full-blast.

“It’s Whitesnake!” he said, elated.

The rest of the van was asleep on our long commute home after a particularly long graveyard-shift. I nodded, absently, unversed in ’80s glam rock.

“I used to have this CD I burned, and all 15 cuts were ‘Here I Go Again’ by Whitesnake,” he continued, with no loss of enthusiasm. “Every time I got fired, or had a girlfriend dump me, I’d just jump in my car and pop that sucker in the stereo. I’d drive for hours like that if I had to. By the end of the drive, all the bad stuff was behind me, and I had a new start. This song was the rebirth. It’s like…the Phoenix rising.”

He bellowed out the lines he remembered and hummed through the rest.

It was no secret that Jack was going through some personal struggles. His girlfriend, who was 8-months pregnant, had just left him. He was trying for the life of him to finally get clean; all while staring down the barrel of what looked to be a vicious custody battle for his first son.

Still, Jack sat, contented, drumming on the steering wheel, singing off-key.

And there, on I-94, just as the sun rose, I saw it. Out of grease-covered, musty Carhartt’s, Jack was being reborn. And a big old, campy Phoenix was rising.

J.R.R. Tolkien vs. Flannery O’Connor- Escapism in Fiction (Craft)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Suppose you were to take out a notebook and a pen and list off the best Christ-following authors you could think of from the 20th Century. 
Chances are, the names “J.R.R. Tolkien” and “Flannery O’Connor” would both be listed on Page One.

But despite their larger-than-life status as novelists and forerunners of Christian thought, both authors had a decidedly different take on the creative life. Consider, for example, the following two quotations, which represent almost diametrically opposed truths about writing:

Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” -J.R.R. Tolkien


I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” -Flannery O’Connor

So what gives? How is it that Tolkien advocates for escapism in writing and O’Connor denounces it? Which is correct, artistically speaking? Which is the right mindset, spiritually?

The answer, of course, is nuanced. 

Let’s start with the artistry aspect. It helps to look at the distinction in writing styles between Tolkien and O’Connor. It’s hard to imagine two writers so entirely unalike: Tolkien, the Oxford-educated, high-fantasy-obsessed polyglot, was famous for his epic and elaborate tomes. O’Connor, on the other hand, was Southern Gothic through and through, and her most famous works were short stories that explored the grisly reality of human nature.

Is at any wonder that their fiction reflected their views on craft? 

Since both writers contrast so drastically, it’s a more useful question to ask whether they succeeded in their particular aims. Luckily, the answer to this question is much easier to answer: it is a resounding yes. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor have received much critical acclaim and popularity. Their works have stood the test of time, and serve as insightful literature that speaks to the human condition. Undoubtedly, both were–and are, successful. 

The two took drastically different artistic approaches, but both shared common themes: unexpected grace, (compare Tolkien’s concept of the “eucatastrophe” and the character “Bevel” in “The River,) the duality of humankind (consider Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings and Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge,”) redemption of a deeply flawed individual (think of “Boromir” and “Gollum” in The Lord of the Rings and “the Grandmother” and “the Misfit” in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”)

These shared themes that run throughout the corpus of work these two literary heavyweights are not a happy accident. They can be traced back to the same source: they were both profoundly impacted by their love for Christ and their Catholic faith. So while they took two contradictory approaches to the creative life, the similarities that bound them were significant enough and elucidated well enough to make them both correct.

Perhaps a final quotation can best illustrate this point. C.S. Lewis, who famously disliked T.S. Eliot’s poetry, acknowledged that the two served the same God. As such, he said about Eliot: “I agree with him about matters of such moment that all literary questions are, in comparison, trivial.” 

May we all take such a mature view.

Don’t phone it in

Students of history may be familiar with the famous (or perhaps, infamous) perfectionism of Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Politics aside, there is an illustrative story of his uncompromising standards during the late sixties:

Winston Lord, the Ambassador to China at the time, was tasked with writing a speech for Kissinger. Kissinger, a gifted speechwriter himself, had exacting standards for those who served under him.

The story is told that Winston Lord brought the first draft of the speech to Kissinger one evening for his feedback and approval. The next morning, Kissinger called him back and asked, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord thought it over. He thought he’d done his best. He answered, “I’ll try again.”

A second time, he tinkered with his speech and brought it back to him after a few days had passed. And again, Kissinger asked him, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord was shaken up, but stated he could do better.

The process continued for eight drafts. Each time, Kissinger resolutely asked, “Is this the best you can do?” After the ninth draft, Lord finally responded, indignantly, “I know it’s the best I can do! Not a word can be improved upon!”

Henry Kissinger looked on Winston Lord and replied, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”


Maybe this story made you smile. Or maybe it made you cringe at the unrelenting perfectionism showed by Kissinger. In any event, I believe there’s a takeaway for each of us, as artists, from this anecdote.

They say that artists are perfectionists by nature. I didn’t get that gene.

The first time I read this story, I felt a sort of conviction related to my writing. True, I’m not delivering important, policy-shaping speeches to heads of state…but how often do I just “phone it in” when I’m working on a new piece of writing? If I’m being honest with myself, it happens more often than I’d like.

Steven Pressfield makes a great case for rugged self-discipline when it comes to writing in his book The War of Art. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, I highly recommend it to start winning “your inner creative battles,” as he puts it.

That book (and this post) is not for everyone. Some writers edit and revise their pieces to ribbons. Some artists trash their seventeenth version of a painting before tearing their hair out. But if you’re like me and you sometimes struggle to “give it your all,” I hope this blogpost acts as the kick in the pants that you need.

Extraterrestrial Tanka (poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

[Note: this poem was originally published in the quarterly print edition of Star*Line on July 1, 2017.]

amber-dotted skies.
paper lanterns wink:
night of the Chinese New Year.

scores of UFOs phoned in:
we slip under the radar.

Convicted by the Sun (Prose Poem)

(after Job 12:7-9)

Ill-tempered and cross-grained. My key off its hook. I’m out through the breezeway. Into the throes of a weekday morning. My brain deplete of dopamine, I scan my surroundings, hoping to find the inconveniences that will justify my cantankerous mood. 

Instead, my eyes are met with a horizon dyed the color of mulberries. Two-century-old oaks applauding in glee. A glistening sunrise saying, “I told the truth each morning since I dawned upon Eden. You are the one out of sync here.” 

I saw a sparrow plucked from the page of a D.H. Lawrence poem. It chirped out Morse code, which, when decoded read, “No personal tragedy is ever so great that it buys you the right to be ungrateful.”

The sun, in swift rebuke, agreed: “The heavens declare the Glory of God. The flowers are clothed in splendor. The rocks themselves are crying out. So, who do you think you are? Who, exactly, do you think that you are?”

Threescore Years and Ten of Writer’s Block (poem)

To quote the infinite monkey theorem: if you were to
be one of a million monkeys at a million typewriters
or keyboards, spread across eternity, time constraints
not-with-standing, you would eventually put
to ink the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s work.
Be certain of that.

That is what worries me, though–that the theorem
is correct; that the typewriter is my own; that I’m
the lone monkey in
question.

On Writing (Pensée)

There have been years I tilled the soil of my mind,
weeding out the passe, banal thoughts before I sowed a single seed.
I meticulously cultivated the plot of land that is the page. 

Those years yielded a handful of well-constructed, satisfactory poems.

There have been years I doused the sidewalk of my brain with herbicides
and all manner of thoughts not fit for human consumption.
Entire months passed when I neglected to set aside any time
for watering, composting, or gardening.
I didn’t expect a single fruitful thought. 

Still, a handful of poems poked their way up through the cracks,
identical in quality to the others.

Maybe I have less to do with this than I thought.

To Thine Own Self Be True (Flash Fiction)

That’s the advice the Bard bequeathed to us some 400 years ago, but then, he didn’t have $50K in school debts and nothing but a Theater Arts diploma to draw on.

After graduation, I lived on a shoestring, getting money from community-theater gigs and a part-time job subbing for a middle-school theater arts teacher. If I wanted more of the “root of all evil,” I’d need to find people even more desperate than myself.

I placed an ad on Craigslist: “Professional ‘yes-man.’ Seasoned actor will act as your double-date to the bar, vouch for your far-fetched excuses to your boss, etc.”

Jobs poured in. I was a wing-man, school principal, doctor; you name it. I side-stepped jobs that could cause bodily harm or willful destruction of property. I tried, for the most part, to steer clear of unethical gigs, but let’s face it— I was paid to be a liar.

One night, I sat opposite to Cheryl and Wade Bledsoe at their dining-room table. A routine gig. Cheryl had backed a company vehicle into a parked car while inebriated. She needed a cover story.

“Pretty easy,” I told Cheryl. “I’ll swing by your office and talk to your boss. I’ll say I watched a guy rear-end you, then take off. You were so nervous, you forgot to file a police report. Thankfully, I gave you my number, in case you needed a witness. Got it?”

“Perfect.” Cheryl breathed a sigh of relief. “How much do we owe you?”

There was something peculiar about the way Wade had been eyeing me. He had that faint look of recognition for the last half-hour.

Just as Cheryl was finishing her question, I placed him. He was a previous client of mine, looking to hook-up with a barkeep on the South side. I played his wing-man, and he got the date.

My eyes shot to Wade’s in recognition. The look of trepidation on his face confirmed he remembered who I was, as well.

I decided to capitalize on the opportunity. Chancing it, I charged him double:

“For a job of this magnitude, the going-rate is $1000. Certain factors bring that number down…if you’ve been referred by a client or you’re a recurring customer. But those wouldn’t apply to you guys, would they, Wade?”

“No,” His voice cracked. “They wouldn’t. Who should I make the check out to?”

Namaste: To Err is Human (creative non-fiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I feel guilty calling their posture “impish,” but in several mythologies imps carry transcendent, supernatural knowledge, so maybe it isn’t such an insult?

There were six or so of the women, tiny and ancient, crouching outside our apartment on the daily, sucking down scented smoke and blowing rings that would put to shame the pool-hall regulars down the street. They were clad in Kurta Suruwal: traditional Nepalese dress, the colorful patterns contrasting beautifully with their tanned, weathered skin that resembled leather in so many ways. Their eyes were deep and friendly, constantly inviting you to conversation, but their tongues were unversed in English, making dialogue next to impossible.

Deepak, whose name means “lamp,” shed some light on these women, our neighbors. Like himself, they were refugees from Nepal. Several, in fact, were family members, sharing his inter-generational two-bedroom sardine can. 

To make their day,” he instructed me, “simply place your hands together, bow your head, and say ‘Namaste’: ‘I bless the divine in you.'”

In a former life, before he was driven from his home, Deepak used to be a professor. But when his political allegiances put him in danger, he was forced to emigrate from his homeland and work in a dog food factory on the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio. In Nepal, he had fortune, status, and political sway. Now, he had nothing. As such, he always seemed to me a microcosm of Cleveland itself. The two were meant to be together, though both acknowledged one another only begrudgingly.

Pain, to him, was now measured on a scale of one-to-his-exile. We spoke often while the remnants of daylight slowly receded below the horizon. We’d watch his children push each other in shopping carts across strewn shards of glass. In such poverty, makeshift toys can be fashioned from just about anything. 

Sometimes Deepak would say wistfully, “You never can know what to expect out of life.” He was over trying to change the world. He’d decided it was enough to keep the world from changing him. He just wanted to minimize the damage.  

Sometimes, I would ask myself: how can being human feel so akin to the divine?

I could feel it: the crumbling brick building wanted to be rid of me. When I stepped out onto my balcony at night, sometimes I almost heard in its creaking a message just for me. “You don’t belong here, Daniel,” it seemed to tell me. “I am not your home.”

In Cleveland, there’s an expression, “Success in Cleveland is making it out of Cleveland.”

My mind was made up. I’d head home to Kalamazoo, Michigan, the city where I was born. 

I was about to experience 258 miles of sheer success.

In a year’s time, I had landed a new job out of state. I only had a week to pack up my apartment and be on my way. My Nepali friend promised to help me move out on our last day. It came as a relief to know I’d have some assistance amidst brown boxes, packaging tape and a sense of overwhelming, unnerving haste. 

But early on in the morning, Deepak received a phone call that pulled him away. I was forced to lug a queen-size bed down three flights of stairs with the aid of only my wife. After our U-Haul was jam-packed and ready to pull out of the parking lot, Deepak was still nowhere to be found. 

Perhaps moving so quickly felt too familiar.  But in his unwillingness to return, I never got to say goodbye to him.

Deepak, namaste.

I forgive the human in you.