Write Your Heaven, Win a Prize

Katherine Mansfield wrote, “Ach, Tchekov! Why are you dead? Why can’t I talk to you in a big darkish room at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside? I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one.”


August 22, 2010

Katherine Mansfield wrote, “Ach, Tchekov! Why are you dead? Why can’t I talk to you in a big darkish room at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside? I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one.”

Recently I realized I’ve been thinking a long time about how we imagine our heavens. In The Stork, a free, downloadable mini-book from the burgeoning featherproof Books, I wrote several characters in conversation:

I think heaven is a place those three can talk without hatred in the spirit of purest fraternity.
Heaven is one of those dark woods in the interstate median, where you sit around a campfire with your tribe, passing a jug of wine.
You’re an idiot; heaven is the glitter of Burdine’s jewelry counter.
More like the sparkle of sun on bonefish flats.
My Mama’s arms.
Your Mama’s arms.
Girls girls girls, cried Mrs. Wieland….

One of my own heavens would be reading to my young sons, clean and pajamaed at the end of a busy day, their heads on my shoulders, on a cool big bed with perfect light.

Yesterday I asked a few talented friends to write theirs:

Brian Beatty, “Writer. Comedian. Dude with a beard.”
I have no idea what my idea of heaven is, or whether I even believe such a place/feeling/state of being is possible. But I do believe that my dog has achieved a sense of what I might call spiritual centered-ness. My simple/stupid hound follows his nose and scratches whatever itches whenever it itches, never mind what else is happening in that moment in time. He's a little stubborn and slow, too, but never outright rude. He lives on his own clock, by his own rules. He's happy all the time, too. Which, to me, sounds pretty close to heaven. I've never been much of a people person, so I don't know what I'd do with angels, anyway.

Josh Birnbaum, photojournalist
Jerry Garcia, my grandfather, is a unicorn galloping through the deep South with a trail of lemmings behind him, each holding a different-colored cane. They sing joyous songs. My whole family is present as ants weaving their way through the grass, and I am a blade of grass, swaying in the wind but ultimately rooted in the ground. No humans exist.

Another heaven is now. I am living it. Suffering is growth.

Steve Davenport, cowboy poet and radio producer
Wallace Stevens talks some good heaven smack in "Sunday Morning," and I'm down with the Talking Heads' "Heaven," which similarly calls out the place of imperishable bliss. Me, my take? Any good moment that stops the rot of time for a bit. But only a bit. The rot's part of it.

Kevin Dolgin, expat writer living in Paris
When I was very young, I thought heaven would be a lot like earth, but with more candy. When I was older, I thought it would be like earth, but with more music. As the years went on, I thought it would be like earth, but with more sex. Then I stopped believing in heaven which left me only with earth and I realized that there's enough candy, music and sex as it is, you just have to keep your eyes open. So for me, heaven is the life I'm living right now.

Erika Dreifus, “Writer. Reader. Reviewer. Resource Maven.”
Paris. Fifth arrondissement. Freshly painted apartment in 17th-century building. View (partial will suffice) of Notre Dame and the Seine. Nearby boulangerie. Cheese.

Susan Henderson, author of Up From the Blue and curator of LitPark.com
This is interesting because the whole family was in the car the other day, and the kids were talking about heaven in the backseat, not realizing that we were listening. My youngest son was saying that he wasn't afraid of dying so much as he was afraid of heaven. Imagine, he said, all day long you're just flapping your wings and everything's calm, and you have to stay there forever! But hey, if the idea of heaven—forever-boring—makes him more careful to stay alive, that works for me!

Thomas E. Kennedy, expat writer of the Copenhagen Quartet (“an astonishment,” says Junot Díaz)
Eternally getting drunk but never being drunk at an endless cocktail party on a warm April day that would not dance away where everyone you ever knew and liked and loved was in attendance and none got bored with your incessant quoting and anecdotes and in the background a tenor sax played in alto range and cool cool cool jazz guitar and all the beautiful women with gazes of tender invitation and oh their sweet lips and off the creamy shoulder blouses and low-vamped toes with painted nails and you never ever have to dance to keep them happy…

Roy Kesey, expat writer most recently sighted in Peru
My heavens are so many and varied and commonplace that at first I was bummed out at being so predictable. Then I realized that what it really means is, I spend tons of time in one heaven or another, all reachable through simple addition:

my kids + any beach + frisbee
my wife + wine + DVD
friends + large hunk of barbecue
bourbon + Gaddis hardback
full tank of gas + map
my folks + beer + their back deck
And I could go on and on and on.

Crazy Larry, an actor
Sitting in a perfectly appointed room with windows filling a wall facing the sea, reading on a comfortable couch with the perfect partner next to me, the woman I haven’t learned enough about yet to want to divorce. In the meantime, “…I think it's gonna be a long long time / Till touchdown brings me round again to find / I'm not the man they think I am at home / Oh no no no I'm a rocket man...."

Kyle Minor, writer, editor, witness
My idea of heaven is what I heard from the traveling preachers at the Southern Baptist church where I grew up. They were always talking about the Great White Throne judgment, where, they said, a 16mm film of our lives -- all our deeds, good and bad -- would play for an audience of God and everyone who ever lived. I used to think how horrible that would be, but now I think it must be the most boring thing in the world. Half of everyone's footage would be sleeping, and how many viewings would it take before even the sex got repetitive and banal? I hope when I die, that's all there is.

Bill Murray [from Groundhog Day]
I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank Piña Coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over?

Jodee Stanley, editor, Ninth Letter
Just arrived in Vermont today, which may explain why the first heaven that comes to mind is an endless, quiet trail through the woods, where I can take a leisurely walk, picking up sticks, looking at flowers, finding little toads alongside the path. And then any time I want to rest, a cabin appears, stocked with armchairs, bottles of wine, peanut butter cookies, and paperback mystery novels.

My second heaven would definitely have fried chicken in it. All my heavens involve food.


So there you have it: Candy, cheese, painted toes, little toads, and William Gaddis.

Now it’s your turn. If you were writing a series of heavens, what would one of them be?

The rules for this contest (there aren’t rules in a heaven are there?; rules sound like a drag and surely bliss means doing what you like best; yet limits perhaps are built-in: Mr. Kennedy’s long slow tease would end abruptly if orgasm was on the program; that is, isn’t it necessary to imagine there is no satiation in an imagined heaven?; even Mr. Murray evolved to seemingly deeper pleasures in Groundhog Day; maybe, as in Mr. Kesey’s heaven, variety carries the eternal day; aw, hell: write whatever you want):

Leave one brief imagined heaven here, as a comment on this post, by the end of the day Monday, August 30, for a chance to win one of three excellent books, from university-affiliated presses, that happen to have “heaven” in their titles. You may enter more than once, but please make each a separate comment.

Entries will be judged by a cabal of my new creative writing students—the ones who look most rascally—on their originality, wordcraft, and evocativeness. Nasty heavens not meant for a general audience of highly educated, sophisticated—even jaded—provosts will never make it past the editor who releases comments for publishing.

Winners will be announced here at the blog next week and will need to e-mail me with their snail addresses to claim prizes. Which book goes to which of the three winners is an unknown process. Allow 4-6 weeks for delivery, as they say.


The most excellent prizes:

The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and His Sons of Genius, by Mike Jay. Courtesy Yale University Press. The publisher says:

At the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, England, founded in the closing years of the eighteenth century, dramatic experiments with gases precipitated not only a revolution in scientific medicine but also in the history of ideas. Guided by the energy of maverick doctor Thomas Beddoes, the institution was both laboratory and hospital—the first example of a modern medical research institution. But when its members discovered the mind-altering properties of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, their experiments devolved into a pioneering exploration of consciousness with far-reaching and unforeseen effects.

This riveting book is the first to tell the story of Dr. Beddoes and the brilliant circle who surrounded him: Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, who supported his ideas; James Watt, who designed and built his laboratory; Thomas Wedgwood, who funded it; and the dazzling young chemistry assistant, Humphry Davy, who identified nitrous oxide and tested it on himself, with spectacular results.

“Brilliantly researched and written…fans of scientific biography and history of science, as well as history buffs in general, will be engrossed by Jay’s marvelous study.”
--Publishers Weekly


Heaven's Touch: From Killer Stars to the Seeds of Life, How We Are Connected to the Universe, by Jim Kaler. Courtesy Princeton University Press. The publisher says:

Did you know that as you read these words showers of high-speed particles from exploding stars are raining down on you? As you gaze into the starry sky, you might feel isolated from the Universe around you--but you're not. This book reveals the startling ways life on Earth is touched by our cosmic environment, and demonstrates why without such contact, life itself wouldn't be possible.

“With the avuncular Professor as our guide, we are taken on a whirlwind tour of the Universe as we know and understand it and how, possibly, we came to be and very nearly not to be. He has a pleasingly straightforward style and, wherever possible, tries to steer clear of complex scientific jargon. . . . Professor Kaler has attempted to enliven what could be a complicated and uninteresting topic, and through linking everything together via his well-explained engaging text, he has admirably succeeded."
--Astronomy Now


The Cave of Heaven, by Patrick Grainville, translated by Dominic Di Bernardi. Courtesy Dalkey Archive Press. The publisher says:

This extravagant novel marks the English-language debut of one of France's most exciting and controversial writers. At the center is a mysterious excavation site in southwest France, where the skull of a 500,000-year-old man has been discovered. Simon, a journalist assigned to do a story on the cave, is a voluptuary keenly responsive to his surroundings, finding an erotic patina over everything he sees, hears, touches, imagines.

As he and a young archeologist from Cameroon find themselves drawn into a whirlwind of sexual hunger, the surrounding countryside fills with strange and exotic visitors: an escaped Basque terrorist, a roving lynx, a redheaded biker queen and her latest conquest (a village waitress), tourists from Northern Europe, a hermit, a gold prospector, a madwoman. . . . All these characters and narrative strands come together at the conclusion as the countryside goes up in flames.

“This is a work that will captivate readers willing to be seduced by extremes of language and image that reflect artistically the voluptuousness of thought and action of the characters created so brilliantly by the author. . . . [T]his is a novel of affirmation: primitive impulses remain vigorous in modern beings. Grainville seizes this convergence, depicting characters who throb and pulse with life and yet who are clearly born of poetic language and imagination.”
--Library Journal


Good luck!


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