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From Houdini to Whodunit: Peter Turchi on "A Muse and a Maze"

by Peter Turchi on

Beware of a writer with a neat narrative about how he wrote his book. We tidy things up, we prepare concise answers to expected questions, we don’t mind distorting facts for the sake of a good story. Sometimes we even lie to ourselves.

When I started writing what is now A Muse and a Maze, I thought my essays about writing were linked by the fact that they all discussed visual art. They weren’t. As I pondered that problem, I wasted time in many ways. One of them was doing puzzles. Over the course of my life I have, at various times, devoted attention to a variety of puzzles: first word searches, then jumbled words, logic problems, chess problems, double acrostics, crosswords, Sudoku, and cryptoquotes. I might go weeks or months without doing a puzzle, then for another stretch of weeks or months I’ll do one every day.

I’m not sure how much time passed—too long—before I thought: “Why puzzles?” And: “Is the pleasure I get from solving puzzles in any way related to the pleasure I get from writing?” I decided to write an essay to answer that question. Then I read a few books about puzzles—jigsaws and crosswords, and puzzles in general in Marcel Danesi’s wonderful book The Puzzle Instinct. I started to see more connections.

I’ve played table tennis most of my life, though I only started playing halfway seriously when I was in my thirties—too late to be much good. But I played in a club in Asheville, North Carolina, for years (and still do, when I’m in town) and occasionally in a club in Phoenix when I moved to Arizona. I knew that Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle and frequent puzzle commentator on NPR, plays table tennis.

One night I was at the club in Phoenix and felt pretty sure I knew who I was looking at, on the far side of the gym. When he finished his game, I introduced myself. I told Shortz I was writing a book about puzzles and writing. He looked perplexed. I told him I was looking for someone who would create a custom crossword for the book, and he said, “Why do that, when you might not get a good one? I’ve got just the thing.” He gave me permission to reprint the crossword that appears in the book, one in which the clues comprise a story—a goofy one, but a story nonetheless. He said I should get in touch if I needed anything else.

Over the next year Shortz put me in touch with Thomas “Dr. Sudoku” Snyder and Michael Ashley, an acrostics composer, both of whom provided work for the book. On my own I tracked down Dave Phillips, a designer of mazes. As I did all of that, the metaphor of writer as puzzle composer became increasingly clear. I talked to people about it, and as they asked questions I shored up weaknesses in the argument.

Finding a title for the book was, for some reason, terribly difficult. I worked on it for years. For most of that time, I thought the title needed to sound like “Maps of the Imagination” or “The Writer as Cartographer.” “The Writer as Puzzle Composer” was an awful title, and “Puzzles of the Imagination” was worse. I decided to go in a different direction, to try to find a turn on a familiar phrase that would seem playful, surprising.

 One night, so anxious about the need for a title that I couldn’t sleep, I thought of “Dazed and Confused”—not as a title, but as a description of my mental state. Then I thought “Amazed and Amused,” which led to “A Maze and a Muse.” I remember waking my wife—or trying to. She barely stirred.

“I’ve got it,” I told her. “ ‘A Maze and a Muse.’ The title. Or ‘A Muse and a Maze.’ For the book.”

She smiled, then went back to sleep. I knew the puzzle was nearly solved.

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Once you've read A Muse and a Maze and fallen in love with Turchi's associative narrative, try your hand at puzzle solving with the acrostic on pages 28 and 29. Who knows. You just might win something! 

Day of the Dead: A Holiday Full of Life

by Eliza Perez on

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is fast approaching, beginning November 1 for children through November 2 for adults who have passed away. It is a celebration to honor the dead and is observed by those in Latin America, particularly Mexico and Central America, as well as Latinos in the U.S.  It is a blending of both Indigenous and European Catholic traditions.  Most importantly, it shouldn’t be mistaken for Halloween.

Rather than a somber occasion, these days are filled with lovely festivities to commemorate our loved ones who have passed away. From museums in the Rio Grande Valley that are hosting poetry readings and altar viewings to the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio hosting an entire celebration with music, face painting, altar viewings, and cemetery tours, Dia de los Muertos is always full of life. 

Traditionally people visit their loved ones graves and create homemade altars for them. In the U.S. this tradition has transformed and now altars can be found in museum or festival exhibits too.  In fact, the acclaimed Latina author Sandra Cisneros has created an altar installation at the Smithsonian this year to honor her mother.

Alters are all unique and personal, usually including the deceased person’s favorite foods, water, candles, pan de muerto (bread of the dead), calaveritas de azucar (sugar skulls), flowers, and even literary offerings.  My mother usually creates a small altar for her father, setting it up with his photograph, candles, water, and some food.

Dia de los Muertos festivities also have a literary tradition in the form of calaveras literarias, short poems written as epitaphs for the living. These are often politically motivated, but can be about any living person you want to criticize or write about in a humorous, yet morbid, manner. Here are a few I’ve translated:

 

Ahí viene la calaca vestida de morado para todos los enamorados.

Here comes the skeleton Death, dressed in purple for all the lovers.  

 

Como con la boca,

camino con los pies

pasa la huesuda y

me caigo sin querer.

I eat with my mouth,

I walk with my feet

the Bony Lady passes me

and I fall unintentionally.

 

This November 1, I’ll be volunteering with the Esperanza Center for their Dia de los Muertos event. So if you’re in San Antonio, you should stop by to get a better understanding of what Dia de los Muertos means to Latinos in the United States. It’s definitely something many of us want to share with our communities and dispel any confusion about it being a Latin American version of Halloween, as well as continue passing down our traditions for further generations. 

PEOPLE LOVE BOOKS!

by Burgin Streetman on

When I started out as a bookstore clerk, all I had to do was put on my name tag and step onto the sales floor to know not only that people were, in fact, reading, but also what they were reading, and who, and how much and how often. 

Hand-selling was an art, and as a bookseller you were so attuned to writers and titles that just by seeing a customer flip through this book, you knew instinctively that he or she would love that book. If you loved books yourself, this form of human interaction was huge fun and left you feeling that anything was possible if you printed it on 200-something pieces of paper, bound it, and stuck it in someone’s hand. Bookselling on the ground can leave you feeling exalted and optimistic. 

I often look back on my time as a bookseller and mistake that earnestness for youth. So many books, so little time . . . yeah yeah. Now, as a forty-something career woman seeing bookselling from a publisher’s standpoint, I sit with my coworkers in our silo making books and marketing authors while crunching numbers too hard and getting distracted by trends. It’s hard not to get discouraged by the publishing business from afar, even when you’re in the middle of it. Do people read books anymore? Do they even care? Oh, to be twenty-something again, unjaded and enlivened by the idea of tomorrow and the next best seller. 

Then I spent a weekend selling books at the Texas Book Festival. And guess what? PEOPLE STILL READ BOOKS! And not only that; they still want to talk about them and hold them and buy them. They want to surround their children with books. They want to give them to their friends. They want to look you in the eye and tell you how much they love them. 

And they want to crowd together in tents on a hot Texas day to be near them, to hear their authors speak and take home a signed copy. They want to buy one book on impulse just because it is sitting there looking well designed and tantalizing. Or a stack of books because one is never enough.

As for the Texas Book Festival, it’s easy to chalk that enthusiasm up to Austin. Austin is intellectual. It’s a reading town. But the more I listened, the more I heard places like California and Georgia and Illinois mentioned. These people were from everywhere, from all walks of life, with one thing in common: they all love books. 

Just like me.


Speaking Out for Mother Earth

by Eliza Perez on

On Friday, October 3, I attended Nina Wilson’s lecture, at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, on the rights of Mother Earth from a First Nations person’s perspective. Wilson is one of the co-founders of the Idle No More movement for the rights of native peoples to protect the lands and waters.

Though I’ve lived in San Antonio for a couple of years, I’d never been to the Esperanza building. As I walked up the stairs I saw a small concession stand selling melon, tacos, and aguas frescas near what looked like papier-mâché figures hanging from the ceiling. The smell of burning sage washed over me as a man offered the smoke to people to waft toward them. The room was filled with friendly faces, both locals and visitors passing through. 

A First Nations man led us in a blessing—or what some might call a blessing, for lack of a better word. He and his family sang as he kept a rhythm on a hand drum. Wilson greeted us in her indigenous tongue, and the talk began.

Wilson discussed environmental issues that have affected First Nations people in southeastern Saskatchewan, Canada, and made them easy to understand for those not familiar with the topic. Big industries have come to the land with promises of more jobs and local funding and have in turn contaminated the water, polluted the air, and introduced illnesses related to nuclear waste and radiation. Wilson’s sincerity shone through as she spoke candidly about the issues, although this has made her a social pariah among her people.

Despite being ignored by some and judged by the elders, Wilson continues to speak out. “We need to appreciate what’s natural,” she said, and encouraged us to learn about the land’s history. This won’t repair the environmental damage, but it can help teach future generations that the earth is important and that we all have a responsibility to keep it safe. “I may not be a scientist,” she said, “but I know it’s all part of the process.”

Wilson discussed the origins of Idle No More, whose name refers to the movement’s founders’ need to do something to make a change in the world. She’s honest about the challenges of being an activist, in terms of both the emotional and the economic tolls. Nevertheless, she continues to take on the big industries that are using up resources in Canada and leaving people ill.

She sees a parallel between the damage done to earth and the abuse inflicted on women. “Earth is abused when our women are abused,” she said. “Our species won’t survive [without female leadership].” Her youngest child is already able to point out systematic racism when she encounters it—a leader in the making.

By the end of Wilson’s talk, the audience was feeling energized and ready to defend the rights of the earth, even if we’d be risking our good standing. “Truth is freeing,” Wilson said, “but it can be dangerous.” 

For more information on the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center's campaigns against fracking watch a video with journalist and activist Amy Goodman featured in Rachel's latest blog post 

Artwork from the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

Spending Time at SXSW ​Eco

by Tom Payton on

Like any relatively media savvy, basically progressive person who finds himself living in Texas, I have longed to attend a SXSW-something. ​I finally did, and ​I'm glad I choose ​SXSW ​Eco. 

Now completing its third year, th​is international eco​-​​hip​ conference seeks to facilitate discussion about a broad range of fairly predictable interdisciplinary topics about all things green. The real focus is on no​t​ just​ debating and sharing, but turning ideas into action. Complete with a strong workshop-hackathon-venture capital focus, new ideas ​emerge to be applied ​to ​new world problems ​in practical and tangible​ ways. It​ even ​seems downright ​revolutionary ​at moments. 

​This sensibility rings true to me. ​The reason I diverted my career path some twenty-six years​ ago from the practice of architecture and urban planning into books and publishing was​, I later had the perspective to realize,​ for the same goals I'd ​studied architecture to begin with. Architecture like publishing, for many​ practitioners, ​is about ​creating the new and changing the old within society, rather than simply provide shelter. It is about looking forward -- albeit sometimes ​that requires a good look back -- ​to imagine solution​s​ to new and old problems​; finding new ways ​for ​people to live. ​Age and experience has allowed me to see this clearly, and to connect my two avocations in a way that makes complete sense to me now. ​More than to simply entertain or inform, books​ -- ​for most of the inspiring people ​I've ​had the privilege of working with over the years​ -- are meant to spark debate​, facilitate understanding ​, and ​lead to ideas and solutions​ in society in need. 

​​I​ was in Austin for SXSW Eco with somewhat of an old world goal: to ​discover new writers and ​acquire books​ for publication​. ​However, on day one I found myself feeling ​a bit ​under-armed: not up on all the latest eco-lingo, ​connected with ​plenty of wireless devices yet in awe of the "techcreativity" surrounding me, and ​simply ​not finding many people who wanted to talk about the book business. Or, so I thought. ​That worry wanes quickly and, as the sessions unfolded, ​I found that ​almost every speaker ha​d ​written one or more books.​ How "old school" of them!​ 

Of the many sessions I attended, a few ​stood-out most. Meeting Dr. Robert Bullard, widely known as the father of the environmental justice movement, was a highlight. ​Favorite p​anels included: organic farming ​in an age soil quality crisis; ​exploring the ​fashion ​industry as the largest consumer of resources ​a​fter the petroleum industry; ​discovering ways to ​re​-​too​l ci​ties in an age of climate change; and, ​developing new models to demonstrate the economic ​viability if not vitality of environmental stewardship. All opened my eyes and sparked my own ideas. Along the way​, other topics as well​: updates on oceans, questioning eating versus feeding, imagining the future of the travel industries, optimizing technology to study endangered animal species​ behaviors​, how to market the urgency of the eco message to a largely unaware or misunderstanding public, and​ innovative redesign​s of public spaces. My favorite​, however, was "Slow is Fast," about intentional tourism in our own ​community,​ and slowing down to learn what is around us​; by a couple of guys who spent month​s​ traveling the California coast by bike to discover ​on a micro level ​what makes their state great​.

So, amid all of this talk of intentional disruption​, social revolution​, and energized eco-optimism, I was curious to discover that the backbone to much of this ​was the good old-fashioned book. It seems having written a good book remains a ​true ​litmus test, intentional or unintentional, for passage to authority status.​ I wanted to buy, and read, most of them (as ebooks, of course) while also falling in love with myriad new apps to allow my phone to help me restructure my eco-lifestyle. 

​Alas, in the end, SXSW Eco was an engaging few days and I can see why it has developed such a strong international reputation in such short time. And, I became really good as conversations with prospective authors that began with "So, what are you working on ... next?"