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.
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.
able to adapt or be adapted to many different functions or activities.
A fiction writer must be versatile, if only for the toggle between fantasy and reality. I once woke to the reality I was due to teach a class in ten minutes. What’s the big deal? I was an hour away from said class, still in my fuzzy pajamas. It was my leg of a carpool and in my zealous story plotting I quite forgot I was supposed to be dressed and prepped to go straight on to my teaching gig. NOT wearing pajamas.
What I’ve found is, when I make even a feeble attempt to bless someone, I am the one who walks away blessed. Such was my experience when I made the acquaintance of blogger Kelvin M. Knight. Here’s how it went: I decided to take fifteen minutes each morning to find and point out fellow writers whose work impacted me. This writing business is like a one-way pen pal relationship, so it’s nice to get a letter back once in a while. I decided to write some letters back.
One morning as I went to be that return letter, I opened my email and received the Versatile Blogger Award.
How appropriate is the image on Kelvin’s About page. You don’t have to read but a few sentences of any one of his posts to agree: Kelvin is all heart. Self-effacing and quietly joyful, he reminds me of a man version of Anne Lamott.
Kelvin writes: The Versatile Blogger Award was created to feature and recognize blogs that have unique content, high quality writing, and fantastic photos. As the Versatile Blogger Award states: Honor those bloggers who bring something special to your life whether every day or only now and then.
The rules for nomination are:
- Thank the person who nominated you.
- Nominate up to 15 bloggers for this award and inform them.
- Share seven facts about yourself.
- Put the logo of Versatile Blogger in your post, displaying these rules.
I even recognized some of the names on Kelvin’s nomination list, like Lynn Love, The Drabble, and Friday Fictioneers. Let me add my voice to his and say these are lovely people who contribute positively to the world, who use their gifts and take the time to encourage others to do the same.
So, seven little things about me:
- I first wanted to be a writer when I read Flowers in the Attic, which Stephen King judged as the putrid trash of the fiction world. This heartens me. My putrid trash may be someone’s favorite, may be a best-seller.
- For two decades I wrote only our family’s Christmas letter because I couldn’t be chill when my littles interrupted me with poopy diapers, playtime, and the rhythmic need for sustenance.
- My favorite book is the Bible because it changed my life.
- I homeschooled our four children. Presently down to one awesome student. 🙂
- When I was ten years old I dug up a friend’s dead cat (and since have used it in many a story).
- Watching my kids grow into beautiful people has been a chief joy of my life.
- Being on a cruise with my husband, being like the kids we were when we met, is another.
Now onto the fun. My nominations.
- Nancy Beach
- Cyndi Hilston
- Nthato Morakabi
- Robert C. Day
- Sara Codair
- Keith A. Kenel
- Sian Brighal
- Peggy Tustan
- Heather Stahley
- Ronel Janse van Vuuren
- Russel J. Fellows
Each person above has, in some way, been a pen pal to me on this writing journey. Each is versatile. More importantly, each is unique. I heard a moving quote last night in the most unexpected place: a Hollywood formula movie, Ghost in the Shell. Just goes to show you diamonds can be found in the mud. Here it is:
When we see our uniqueness as a virtue, only then will we have peace.
Like all the outliers I’ve covered, this planet was named for some dead Earthian. Back then you could have a star named after yourself for less than the cost of a decent dinner. This man had a hundred stars named after him.
Trump XV looked no different than all the others. When the infrastructure goes, it’s all dust and rubble, looters and legionnaires. The wise stay underground in shelters.
I came upon a fluffy white Havanese. The little guy reclined on his owner’s grimed and tattered form, nuzzling her neck.
A flimsy leaf-like hand made feeble efforts to brush away the wee beast. She shook her head from side to side. Her iron-rich neck and shoulder muscle was, in fact, the dog’s meal.
I took the shot.
Took it from several angles. All the while she moaned and uttered the same word over and over. I didn’t speak Svoodian, but I could guess what the word was.
“Just a minute,” I told her as I stepped over her splayed legs to get a better angle. I crouched down for the close-up. The dog wasn’t budging. From its tiny mouth came a wet sound like child-hands in mud.
Probably the woman didn’t understand me, either, so I held up one finger.
I sent the shot to my editor with this caption: Dogs wearing collars become dinner or diners, depending on who kills who first.
At first I wrinkled my nose at the given prompt: foreign correspondent/battlefield/memoir. Nothing came. I spun their spinner over and over and… nothing. Then I thought of the book of Job (as I happened to be reading it). The phrase “and I alone have escaped to tell you…” leapt out at me as a possible opening for a foreign correspondent, and of course my correspondent had to be on another planet. Originally that phrase from Job was to begin my entry, but as I began the journey into this story, the original phrase lost its place. As so often happens in writing. So the prompt DID spawn something fun after all. My lesson: keep at it. Usually something comes.
Not that kind of flasher, naughty bird. A flash fiction writer.
Why should I be a flash fiction writer? You ask. I’m glad you did. Flash fiction forces several wondrous talents upon you:
- Economy of language.
- Full-bodied plot in a tiny, weeny package.
- A stretch into new genres, styles, content.*
- Opportunity for you to turn away from a grueling, lonely novel-nobody-sees and hit publish.
- The thrill of weekly or monthly contests, like zeroflash, cracked flash fiction, and microcosms.
- Receive needful pets from fellow writers and learn to give same. Be in community.
I had this thought as I sat down today with my novel-in-progress: flash fiction should/could be part of Stephen King’s famed tool box for writers. Use it if it suits you. At first I couldn’t imagine liking anything less than a full-length novel, but the more I read and write flash, the more I appreciate its form. It’s like poetry and fiction made love and bam! Flash fiction.
*One such stretching happened to me just this month. The prompt for July’s Zeroflash is to write a metafiction piece. Metafiction? What on earth is that? The latin prefix meta means beyond, which I think of as above and beyond. Still, above and beyond fiction? I had to look it up. Luckily some of the examples were books I’d already read, so I understood that metafiction called attention to itself as a form or structure. Call me thick, it didn’t get much easier once I knew what the stuff was. But chew on a thing long enough and eventually it assimilates into you. Check out my metafiction flash piece here.