Sometimes you stumble across a literary landmine. Blown away. Can I be infused with this man’s sense of humor and word sense?
I’m trying to leave my novel alone for a few weeks so I can read it with “fresh” eyes and polish it. Again. This polishing will be the fourth draft on I Trespass. Since I’m not actively writing my novel, my schedule is different. Like: Who moved my cheese? Normally I pick up a thread where I left off the previous day, but in these waiting weeks I face a totally empty page each morning. Some days I even get writer’s block. For me that doesn’t mean the page stays empty; it’s just filled with pointless junk. Enter prompts. Oh, how I love thee, writing prompts! Today I found one here. It’s rules require me to slash my flash in half: 99 words to write a story involving riptides. (and prompted a bit of obnoxious rhyme)
Riptides: The idea of being pulled (or ripped) away from safety. Of losing control. Being abducted by water. The ocean has always filled me with a mixture of fear and wonder. You can’t stand next to that pounding, teeming, gargantuan force and think yourself important.
I finished my first attempt at 8:16AM with 145 words. Yikes. Time for the chain saw. Second draft: 117 words, 8:30AM. Third draft: 95 words, 8:37. You’d think I’d leave it alone. But no, I have four more words I can add back in. It’s on. Final, 8:49AM. 99 words, exactly. Bam. I hear Rocky music in my head. Ladies and gentleman, my story follows.
The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Life
Harper walked the beach. Her psychiatrist mandated daily exercise, and Harper’s mom considered it an encouraging sign. The shell basket always returned full of treasures. Mom didn’t notice the basket left with treasure as well: the contents of Harper’s bedroom. Her baby blanket, beloved stuffed animals, crayon drawings, trophies. Then medals, books, make-up. Finally, Harper tossed the contents of her dresser into the sea and reverently watched the riptide spirit her belongings away. The sea had just about everything. The next day Harper closed the door on her hollow room and went out.
“No basket today?” her mom asked.
From her usual spot between the front seats, the little girl gazed at the passing landscape, absently drawing shapes in the craggy skin on Father’s neck. On either side of the road the broken bones of civilization lay in colorless mounds. She often wondered why the colors left, why the piles weren’t bright like Lego bricks. Perhaps because she was thinking this, her heart thrilled at the orange fur sticking up from the drift.
“Stop!” she screeched. Her father slammed on the RV”s breaks and shot the girl into the huge front window. The purslane Mother had been cutting for dinner flew like confetti.
“What the hell!” Father gripped the steering wheel. The girl pointed to the almost invisible orange slash. He squinted, his brow furrowed. She could tell he was about to lose his temper, so she darted down the steps and out the hole that had once been a door on their RV, when their RV had been a vacation vehicle and not their home, when homes still stood.
The girl ran to the drift and extracted the treasure, shaking the radioactive dust from its fur the same way women once shook out clean clothes, back when people bothered cleaning clothes, back…
The cat’s matted coat hung off its bones like bolts of loose fabric. She put her grimy nose next to its pink one, and whispered, “Wake up.”
The cat’s eyes remained little tipped dashes.
“Wake up I said!” the commanding tone was clearly an emulation of her father’s. She gave a hearty, bone-rattling, flesh-tenderizing shake. Nothing.
Cradling the cat in her arms, she took slow, shuffling steps, the kind that don’t want to, not toward Mother and Father and the RV, but to the front door, to all was left of the cat’s home. She knocked.
Sherman Alexie is an American Indian. He’s also a writer. My Native American roots have given me an almost non-existent nose, high cheekbones, and a convenient dearth of body hair. Other than that, I don’t relate to his marginalized experience, except that it gripped me and made me fall in love with reading and writing all over again. Sometimes you read something so profoundly affecting, you want to grab your bull horn. Not having a cosmic bull horn, I satisfied myself by assigning it to my 5000 Words class.
In response to Alexie’s short story “Superman and Me,” I had my students write about their own reading journeys. I have to tell you, no aspect of the 5000 Words Class has been more enjoyable than these fine essays. They were a sort of education and a balm and an affirmation– all in one. There were recurring themes. When reading is made to be a warm, peaceful, safe, and lovely prospect, those feelings stick to us years later. Reading opens doors. Alexie explored that image brilliantly. So did my students.
My own story is similar to the ones I read. I was not an early reader. In fact I was in Title I, translated “not-getting-it.” We got to sit in a small semi-circle with an aide and get extra reading help while the other kids moved on? Read books? I don’t know. I remember my dad, my hero, reading Dick and Jane books with me, and I remember hating them with a white-hot hatred. They were so dumb. I basically languished in school until sixth grade when Mr. Stoisits devoted a portion of each week to “pleasure reading.” He’d stocked his room full of actually, no kidding, honest-to-goodness exciting books of every genre, and he let us choose.
It was the first time I enjoyed a book. I went through a door. And once I knew that door existed, I kept coming back. Sometimes the door was locked. Some books didn’t thrill me at first. Some, ok many confused me, but I wanted to rekindle that same delight of my first book-loving experience, so I kept at it. Eventually I met a book series I adored so much that I did not want it to end, ever. The words The end felt like a death. How could this author evoke such thick and horrible and wonderful and terrible emotion? How could words be more important than sleep?
I wrote a promise to myself. I vowed I would one day make people love characters the way I loved these. I remember writing it out like I was contracting with God. I may have written it on the inside cover. The book is lost, but my promise is not.
For his people, Sherman Alexie considers books as more than doors. They are life rafts and ramparts and square meals. They are the solution to everything. In a way I agree with him. The very best book, the Bible carried me to peace. Books are a way into minds we wouldn’t dare plumb, a way into minds we could care less about, but ought to. They are the only ancient boundary line of the human experience.
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one. – George R.R. Martin
On this journey to publishing my novel I often take little tangents, usually in the form of writing competitions. I love the immediacy of the feedback and the stretching prompts. Zeroflash’s August competition garnered me an honorable mention from the talented Jan Kaneen. I can’t tell you how uplifting it is to have a writer whose work I admire, admire my work! The writing journey is often riddled with insecure moments, lonely moments; the whole thing is mostly me feeling misunderstood and reaching out, like a kid holding a scribbled drawing and asking Do you like it? But as the journey goes on, I don’t hold up my drawings anymore, though some days I long to– especially on days when I’m feeling Genesis 1:31 …and God saw all that He made and behold, it was very good. I know my insatiable need for affirmation is a beast that must be tamed. But can never be tamed. Robert Frost taught me: Success doesn’t tame it, not all the praise in the the world will tame an artist.
My writing style often provokes this response: I don’t get it. Four words I dread to hear, but need to hear. Am thankful to hear. But these four I love much better: to-die-for language, with specific examples. So I’m savoring this moment of hearing four different words.
I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud. – Stephen King
I went shamelessly for the gross out. Read it and see if you agree.
Fedir and Art were sorely unprepared for chemistry– all the excuse they needed for a day trip to the exclusion zone. Their options were “F” in chemistry vs. possible radiation poisoning. One promised a thrill.
“It’s perfectly safe,” Fedir said, “How else do all those animals live there?”
The abandoned amusement park surpassed their imaginings: especially the bumper cars frozen in skewed arrangements, caught in verdant webs of nature’s somnolent devour. Hostile shrubs punched through pane-less windows, and towering above it all– the Ferris wheel, monument to stilled life in Pripyat. Art pulled out his copy of Roadside Picnic and read: “Intelligence is the ability… to perform pointless or unnatural acts– ”
From the tangled growth a sound: leaves being crushed. Art’s smile died on his face.
“Quick!” Fedir dived into the nearest Ferris wheel car. Art followed. Probably just moose, but it could be police. A guttural growl, more leaves stomped, the brisk snap of tree limbs. Some enormity was less than twenty feet away and advancing.
“Moose?” whispered Art. He swiveled and peaked over. A serrated tongue flashed, cracked whip-like, and the top of Art’s head disappeared. Cleanly. Bone sliced like melon rind. The piece of Art that held his eyes was tossed mercifully away. Fedir heard it strike the metal supports then come to rest on the asphalt. He sank lower into the footwell and noted with macabre interest, Art’s hands still gripped the rail though he’d slumped.
Fedir remained frozen while the cloying copper smell of Art bloomed, lingered, and long since evaporated. In a cathedral silence. One with the steel cage, the grooves in the footwell painfully embossed Fedir’s skin. Art’s bowels released. Fedir wept silently.
The sun set behind a barb wire copse. Shadows advanced, followed by smothering dark. Fedir heard stirrings from the wood.
Fear. I wish I could cut it from my soul with a scissors. I wish I could lay on a comfy couch, talk its existence into oblivion, then charge myself $100/hour. I’d collect my fees and go on a vacation to the beach.
I have an active imagination, so I fear things most people haven’t even thought of. Example: Swings and Things. Everybody else just dons the batting helmets. Me, I think What is the probability there’s lice in there? I mean, how many scraggly heads have been inside that thing today alone? And everybody knows you’re not supposed to share headgear…
How about door handles. Am I the only one who considers the millions of invisible germs crawling all over those suckers? Or speaking engagements. Truly. Frightening. Or posting my innermost thoughts for the world–
You get my point. But I try very hard not to let fear stop me from doing anything. I charge it. Get it over with. The hardest thing is the waiting. A hard thing looms on the horizon and I just want to compress time so I can face it and put it in the rear-view mirror.
My kids have to live with this philosophy. I homeschool them, which you’d think is inherently insulating. And in some ways, it is. Or it can be. Who hasn’t met the socially backward, jumper-wearing, yellow-toothed homeschooler who hasn’t seen a hairbrush since 1995? That’s what I’m working against. I can conjure up all sorts of uncomfortable hard, fearful, tearful, engagements where my little ones’ homeschoolness will be showing, oh yes, and in those fearful, tearful, weirdful moments when they want to crawl into a hole and die (or at least crawl back home into their fuzzy blankets where math problems are their only problems)– in that moment, they get a glorious chance to rise. Rise and face whatever “horror” I set in front of them. Today it was meeting the herd of cross country kids at the stadium, all of whom came from class while my guy stands outside the locked gate (an apt image, as it were) waiting to be let in. “I wish there was just one other homeschooler, so I wouldn’t have to be alone,” he says. Inside I sigh and understand completely. With my outside voice I tell him to embrace this because he’ll be stronger for it.
I’m not a tiger mom, contrary to the opinion of my family. But I am driven to certain opportunities: fearful, tearful, weirdful opportunities at which they can rise and overcome. God help us.
Child: “I hate this. Why do you force me to do x?”
Me: “To prepare you to face a world that doesn’t care about you, without me.”
We have not only the “right to write,” but the responsibility. What else is so permanent a snapshot of the mind, save writing? However, writing doesn’t pay the bills when we start out (and maybe never). Barring lottery winners, one must make a living. The tightrope is to figure out how to make a living on writing. I teach writing, which I LOVE. My hope is one day to make money punching away at these keys, lost in a world of my own creation.
I am basically an angry person.
To be clear when I say ‘angry’ I mean the buttoned-up version that’s woven into the tweed fabric of an Englishman of my age. I’d never actually show my anger, I couldn’t punch a face, complain in a restaurant or even wag an accusatory finger…no, I’m angry in the way that means I smile as my blood pressure rises and my chance of a heart attack increases year on year.
Anything can set me off. The national shame that is Brexit, the international injustice of Yemen, cats looking at me in a funny way….pretty much anything can be a trigger.
This week it was a twitter conversation (is that what you call a string of tweets) with the author Mary Carter last week (@mjcarterauthor).
She was saying that she resented having her writing branded as a frivolous hobby…. that she had been told to get…
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