It’s been a while since I’ve recorded a story. This is a story that I wrote over the summer, 2010. I’d set myself a goal of writing a story a week during July and August and this was the fourth story. It’s one of those stories that feels as if everything in it is true, even though I made it all up. It struck me that I was able to someone get at something I’d been unable to get at before in my fiction. I hope you enjoy. Please pass it along to friends who like short fiction.
But it is daunting to think that this pile of short stories needs to be read by Monday. And a similar pile for Wednesday. Not only read, but pondered, commented on, and written about. I always say, “this semester I’m going to write shorter commentary for these students because most of them don’t care and what’s the point.” But some of them do care and some of them are good writers and I always write too much because, well…because that’s how I roll, I guess. It is what I does. It’s snowing like crazy today. Home safe and sound. Off to read.
540A Up. Centered. Sitting. Presence. Back hurts. Lay down. Stretch out. No use. Cat meowing.
610A Daughter’s alarm blares. Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.” Loud. She does not get out of bed.
630A Open daughter’s door. I’m getting up, she says.
640A Make breakfast. Lunch. Help daughter get backpack together. Find missing sock. Eat bowl of cereal. See bus pass. Snow outside grey and lumpy.
730A Journaling project. Not real writing. Chastise self for not writing fiction. Continue in journal. Figure stuff out. Say goodbye to wife. She leaves for real job.
830A Leave for coffee with friend. Chat for about 45 minutes. Coffee shop gets noisy due to senior bus stopping. Everyone going to Foxwoods where they have, apparently, a killer buffet.
930A Drive to school to pick up the one thing I forgot to bring home the day before. Return home. Begin grading analytical essays. Grade them and grade them and grade them.
12Noon. Lunch for everyone! Father-in-law has late breakfast. Dog goes out, comes in. Check mail. Nothing. Nada. We still get mail delivery for what? Back to grading. Pause momentarily to worry about not writing some more. This lingers all day. No matter what else. An agent has agreed to look at next book when done. It is not done. Back to grading.
220P Daughter arrives home. Doesn’t feel good. Talk with her. Ask her about day. Forget about writing for a while. Totally and completely forget about analytical essays. Help daughter feed chameleon that she is watching for a neighbor. Notice how slowly it moves across the plastic leaves and how quickly its tongue darts out to snag a very tiny cricket. Back to grading. Daughter takes nap, surprisingly.
500p Make dinner. Mac and cheese comfort food for daughter. Fried brown rice, chicken, onion, old bay, peppers, peas, carrots, salt, shallot. Good stuff. Wife comes in only briefly. A crazy week. So much work. Eats, then out the door for another commitment.
700p Grade paper. Discover that one student has, almost certainly, either plagiarized a paper or taken a paper written for another class. It’s just too obvious. Grow frustrated. Could be using this time to write. Shake fist at sky. Write student long note explaining position and outlining possible actions. Hold off sending till tomorrow.
830p Hanging with daughter. Wife comes home. Fleeting seconds of talk in which the coming week is discussed. She has some time off. I’ll be at work, though. Try to find balance.
900P Back to grading after daughter is in bed. Three more papers and they are done.
1100P Finish papers and prep the next batch for tomorrow. Be grateful they are stories from the fiction class, not analytical essays. Think: I’ve challenged myself to blog something nearly every day. Wonder why fiction writing is impossible. Remind self that a good novel is brewing. Very good. With Zombies. Something new, risky. Think that these zombies will kick the crap out of Justin Cronin’s vampires. Plot future writer feud with Cronin. Think: he’s probably a nice guy, but he’s going down.
1148P Close computer. Get ready to soak in the tub for a few minutes. Wonder why back feels like a spike has been jammed through it. Then, sweet dreams.
Tonight, Grace played in the first round of the sixth grade girl’s basketball tournament. Her team lost 29-19, but much fun was had by all. Their opponents, the Rye Middle School Girl’s Team, played excellent. They are an excellent team and it was obvious they’d played together for a while (Rye is much smaller school, and this was their only team) and that the coach had them playing at a very high level. They had nine players on their team. Our team, on the other hand, was one of three Portsmouth Middle School Girl’s teams, and we only had six players, none of whom had played together before a few months ago. The game started with Rye up 12-0. At halftime, they lead 18-3. What I really loved about watching the game, however, was the real heart our girls showed against a team that was obviously the better team.
I’m not one to care about winning. Our culture’s fixation with winning, to be blunt about it, annoys me. But I also don’t like to watch blow-outs. They annoy me too. I’m a fan of good, hard-fought, competitive games. I’d rather see my team lose by a point than win by thirty. I love to see gritty and scrappy teams play up to the level of their competition. For instance, I loved watching Seattle outplay the Saints this past football season–something about the small team taking the big man down I find very appealing. Or even if they don’t take the big man down, but give him a run for his money, scare him a little but come up short. I’d rather see that any day than some blow out.
So, in the second half, when our girls kept fighting (outscoring the Rye girls 16-11), but came up short, how could that not be awesome? Grace was right in there, fighting for rebounds, stealing a couple of balls, nailing one shot. The season’s over and she just started to “get it.” Just started to get confident, to take a pass now and then and try to drive to the basket. She’s still struggling with getting the dribble down, so sometimes she’d lose the ball, but it was still pretty awesome. She was playing hurt, too, a little bump on her knee, a little strain in her shoulder. I watched her on the bench for a few moments after she came out for her shoulder. She rubbed it a bit and then stood and walked over to the coach, ready to go back in. Heart. I know, I know, she’s my kid and I’m supposed to say things like that, but it wasn’t just my kid. It was all of them, on both teams really. I guess I’m feeling grateful that I was able to be there, to see them fight back, but come up short. It felt like what sports are supposed to be about. Solid competitive play.
Our girls had a lot of shots tonight, but they couldn’t get many of them to fall. But even with two minutes left, they played with urgency. Grace scored the last two points–both free-throws after a foul–to bring the game within ten. I think I could have watched all night.
Took my fiction students to the art gallery today. The object was to search the exhibit for inspiration of some sort. I always work with my students, grabbing a little time with the page when I can. Here’s what I found, rough certainly, but a doorway:
The executor was older than Gregory’s father had been, a hunched, compact man with fingers nearly too gnarled to hold the magnifying glass he used to read the thick pages of the will. Really, Gregory thought, what sort of paper had they used? Parchment? Sheepskin? The ink had been scratched into tiny letters; the words themselves were scrunched and cramped, like the footprints of insects. The executor cleared his throat in a long, moist gargle as if he was about to speak, but he did not speak. His mouth hung open and whatever bile or decay that had been coring this thin old man from the inside wafted through his lips and into the room. He lost his grip on the magnifying class and it fell with a thud onto the will. He made some noise–a groan? some invective?–to indicate disappointment and the set to pick up his tool. On his forehead, a small dot of blood sat like a third eye. It was most certainly an irritated spot on the old man’s skin that he’d scratched until it bled, but Gregory found himself imagining that through this third eye, his dead father could see clearly into the room, and thus into his own guitly heart.
His sister was there, too–Victoria–Vicky or Tory depending on whether or not her father was present; Vicky was the innocent, the perpetually virginal, naive, and devoted daughter; Tory, whom she claimed was an extension of her torrid side, was loose, an immoral woman who’d loathed her father. She’d always been Vicky to their father and despite the few moments of Tory that had slipped through her mask, and for which her father had chastised her and for which she’s dutifully acted the penitent, he’d died thinking of her as this quiet and meek thing. What would his father think now, Gregory thought, seeing Tory in this office in her low-cut blouse and skirt above her knee? What would he see through his crimson portal in the executive’s forehead?
They’d not brought their mother of course, for she was incapable of leaving her bed and incapable, so far as anyone knew, of remembering anything and hadn’t even recognized their father for nearly two years except for one time that she sat upright in her bed and said, Randall?–which wasn’t his father’s name, but some other man’s, some other memory that she’d secreted away, presumably from her childhood, before she met and became engaged to her husband at seventeen–but then said, No, not Randall, but Peter, dear Peter, and her face had softened into a smile–a generous smile according his father, because neither Gregory nor Victoria had been present–and they’d both enjoyed this final and fleeting moment of lucidity. Gregory had been to see his mother the day before and she’d not woken at all during his visit, merely slept without moving in exactly the same position she’d been sleeping in the last time he visited, and she remained the same, near-translucent ghost that she’d been now for–how long? Years? Even trying to remember his younger mother, the woman more vivid in photographs than actual experience had become a futile exercise. Her oldness, the tough, wrinkled knot of her body, blotted out decades of his memory.
The executor had regained control of the magnifying glass and was holding it in front of the paper. The bloody eye on his forehead pulsed due to his exertions. His breathing was labored too, as if he’d been climbing stairs. His body shook so badly from palsy that Greg was unsure how he’d ever got his clothes on or prepared himself to leave the house. He must have started dressing at an ungodly hour–or had perhaps dressed the night before. He wore a dark suit with an enormous collar and a white shirt yellowed at the cuffs and down the long row of buttons. His tie was intricately knotted. Beneath his jacket suit jacket cuffs peeked a pair of gold cufflinks. It was suddenly clear to Gregory that these were the only clothes the man wore, that there could have been no way that he could have removed them. Whatever body lay under the fabrics–and Gregory wasn’t even sure there was a body, nothing that one might call a body anyway–was fused with the stitching and the cloth. Undressing the executor would reveal not a naked body, but the innards of the man himself, his faulty, pitiful heart and gasping, starved lungs. But the eye? There was some devilish aliveness there, some demonic agency that gave the executor more power than his powdery body deserved. His head floated about the jacket collar, seemingly disconnected from any neck, just hanging there, jittering this way and that. Your father…he said in a voice so dry that it made Gregory thirsty. Goodness, Victoria said, startled by the rooms sudden aridness. Both Gregory and his sister sat up straight and listened and the executor began the reading of the will.
(Fun to write, but then class was over and I had to get home… I hope to develop this little beginning into something at some point.)
A strange thing, my writing life. There is little that is constant. One day I’m passionate and ready and charged with the knowledge that all I must do is the daily work, spend time at the desk, and I will inevitably find my way into those creative spaces that E.M. Forster talked about, the places where I will access things normally beyond my reach. They seem that close on some days, those spaces. I’ve accepted that I’m a slow learner with writing (for instance, I just had a conversation with Bradford Morrow–a very nice, perceptive, warm man–and he’s published seven novels and several collections of short fiction and he isn’t that much older than me, a sprinter’s pace that cannot help me but to see my own speed as more of an “amble” ) and that I’ve taken a long time to learn simple lessons about my work on the page, but on some days, the next big phase forms just beyond a thin layer of fog, just around the next turn.
But on other days, not only is the fog too thick, but the road is all busted up and blocked by wind-blown trees and mudslides and angry mobs waving torches and pitchforks. On those days, I have no clue what I’m doing with writing. Tonight, for instance, I was jotting down some ideas in my notebook and I wrote, “I should just go out and burn these little books and be done with it. A big bonfire that I can toss all these papers and notes and journals into one at a time to erase it all and get on with living without all the hassle.” Sure, it’s partly a case of not being satisfied with daily progress–any act of writing only happens in increments–but it’s also the lingering thought that I’m simply too old to begin the writing life I’ve imagined.
No advice needed on this front. It’s all cyclical thought and comes and goes according to some whim of its own. I’ve told myself many times that the writing life I’ve imagined is not the one I have. I only have the writing life I have. I’m only the writer I am. I understand this on an intellectual level. But the part of me that seeks to create? That part isn’t intellectual. It’s off to the side of the intellect and I can’t really tell it what to do, or how to think about the work I am/am not doing. Tonight, I imagined burning all of my work. Tomorrow, after I go to school and do some writing exercises with my students, I might feel differently. I’m not even sure publishing has much to do with these thoughts. Last week, a nice little journal called Eclipse bought a story of mine called “Revival.” I’ve wanted to place this story for a long time. I’ve always liked it and could never figure out why no review wanted it–it’s been rejected nearly twenty times. You’d think that getting the acceptance would buoy my writing spirits, but the opposite happened (and please, Eclipse folk, if you see this, it has nothing to do with you! I’m honored to be in your review). I was very happy for a short period of time and then the thought entered: What if that story is the last good thing you’ll ever write? Even though it was a ridiculous thing to think (I’ve written stories since “Revival” that I like even more than that story), I could not shake it. I wanted to burn all my writing that night too.
I don’t have the answers. I doubt any writer really does. Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest writers in English, ever, had his wife lock him in his writing room and not let him out until he was done writing. He’d pound on the door and claim that he was a fraud. This from the guy who wrote Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. This after he’d already been acknowledged as a master. I’m sure other writers have similar stories. I’m just another writer trying to figure it out.
Immediately, I’m concerned whether or not I should be talking about my writing in the context of Joseph Conrad’s writing. Sort of conceited, right? Should I compare my reams of unpublished stuff with his timeless, complex novels? Probably not. But I bet if we had a fire and were both tossing our books and papers into the flames, it’d be hard to see which were burning brighter.
We miss you Gil. The team isn’t the same without you. They’re doing okay, solving crimes, using those micro-wave type machines to analyze anything under the sun, accessing the incredible array of databases (an entire database for the fabrics used in automobile trunks! A national list of shark DNA!), putting on their sunglasses and shining flashlights into the already brightly lit corners of murder scenes. Vegas is still glitzy and sinny and Nick has become a solid, dependable man in your absence. Catherine has struggled some to come to terms with being in charge of the team. She’s had this on and off thing with one of the detectives (does it matter which one? Gil, please. You know it doesn’t!) and he’s pressured her to become something she isn’t. She simply wants to be back in the field. Turns out, she’s come to some sort of acceptance about her father’s life. She owns a stake in a casino, but she’s as straight an arrow as ever. Sarah’s been back for a while, but you know that. I suspect you miss her fiercely, but also clinically. Hard to tell how deep your passions run; your attentions are always been drawn to some insect somewhere, some indicator of decomposition. Greg nearly got sidetracked by a dame this year. Almost. But you trained him good. Truthfully, everyone is doing their best, but something is lacking. Ray’s been a good part of the team, certainly, but we’re all wondering how carefully you vetted the guy. He’s a deeply strange man. He’s hiding something–or wants us to believe he’s hiding something and you know better than anyone that can’t be good. When did a secret turn out to be good news? If nothing else, it means he doesn’t trust his team, yet. But is that it? We’re worried that he might bring down their world. You gave him your seal of approval, of course, so we keep fighting to like the guy. He’s capable and can be quite imposing, but distant too. Not distant like you, Gil. You were distant, but human. Ray seems too composed, with too many skeletons waiting to gum up the works. Ecklie is barely around these days. Maybe because he has no foil, no dark office to barge into demanding results. Maybe he knows that without you, he’s just another bureaucrat trying to close out open cases? Brass? Brass is all sarcasm now. He’s hurting without you. He’d never say it, of course, and I’d hate to be in the interrogation room with him (he’s a pit-bull, that guy, he just won’t let go) but his undeniable, unshakable sense of justice feels more lonesome now, less emphatic. Working without you has simply exhausted him. You were his anchor, but you knew that. Part of the reason he relied on you was because he trusted that you’d never say things like, “I’m your anchor.” It was just something we all felt. And face it, the rest of the world isn’t so pretty either Gil. There are bugs you can examine right here in the deserts surrounding Las Vegas. Part of you left because you could no longer take the ugliness of the streets. But here’s the rub: no matter where you go, people are going to be awful to each other. You leave Vegas, head to Peru or Indonesia, but you find the same stuff there. And you bring yourself with you wherever you go. But us? Left here alone? Our streets are worse without you Gil. The team brings all their best selves to our service. They do, they really do. They are troopers. But they’re not making it without you. And when they hurt, we all hurt. We aren’t the sort of people that would ask you to return simply because we missed you. We aren’t that shallow nor insensitive. We saw you last week, you know. We were peeking over Sara’s shoulder as she spoke with you via iChat. Just seeing you there Gil, that quick flash of your smile, the no-nonsense explanation of how we got the word “sex-pot” into our language, undid us. It wasn’t until maybe that very instant that we realized how much we missed you, and how much we needed you. You carried us through it all, Gil. You made our lives a bit better, hour by hour. So we’re asking–and we know what this entails, we understand the sacrifice–that you come home. We’ll make your return a joyous affair. We won’t take you for granted. We’re sure the powers that be would let you dictate your own terms. So, we aren’t asking that you make a split-second decision here. Take your time. Talk it over with the wife. Get back to us in a week or so. We’ll be waiting. Thursday night is always a good night to call. Or don’t call. Just show up. Surprise us. It’s something that’s been lacking in our lives, that sense of surprise and discovery that you bring to every crime scene you analyze. At least think about it, okay? Your office remains as you left it. Waiting, waiting.
Why do I keep posting about this new literary review? It’s a beautiful review full of wonderful writing and writers. In this age of decreasing readership, where publishing has become a labyrinthian process, an independent review like The New Guard is necessary. It is the only independent literary review in Maine. Its content is matched by a fine and carefully rendered design. In my hands or on my shelf, The New Guard is more book that journal. It has physical and intellectual heft. It is packed with poetry and prose both delicate and visceral. The Kickstarter funds will held provide the review with stable, sustainable funding. For fans of good writing, this is one of those rare, good hopes. As of today, to receive the Kickstarter funding, they need more backers and about eleven hundred more dollars. For a few dollars, you can help this new review find it’s permanent foothold. If you can’t donate at this time (understandable in this fiscally uncertain day and age), perhaps you can forward this link to those who might have some spare change lying around. If thirty people donate thirty dollars, they’d be almost there. Only eight days left to meet the Kickstarter deadline.
I’ve been really into Zachary Schomburg’s book, Scary, No Scary and today just wanted to share the title poem with anyone who felt like listening. It’s a strange, haunting book, as delicate as it is visceral. It makes me want to read more poems. And maybe write some, too, although I doubt I’d share the poems from my pen. Hopefully, Mr. Schomburg won’t mind too much that I’m reading his work aloud. But my hope is that I might encourage a few people to search out his book. We all need a little more poetry in our lives. For more information, you can visit his publisher, Black Ocean, at http://www.blackocean.org
Here’s the poem:
Yesterday, I showed my fiction classes a clip of an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle. At one point, he’s asked if he likes writing and he says that there are times (winning the Man Booker Prize for instance) when he absolutely loves writing. There were other instances, sometimes covering long periods of time, in which it was not so easy, when it felt more like trudging the writing life. Still, he said, he’d rather be writing than anything else.
It seems easy to say such things when you’ve got a few books under your belt. Winning the Man Booker or the Pulitzer can go a long way toward mitigating any disdain a writer might be developing for the work. I’m not saying those writers don’t have doubt. They do, and sometimes it’s crippling. But for those of us who have to be content with publication (if any) in small literary magazines without the wider audiences afforded the “cream of the crop” writers, the grind of writing is almost always present, at least for me. I suppose I can’t speak for others. What I’m saying is that even though a published and respected writer may have moments when he/she feels out of tune or out of touch or just plain bad or hopeless, they can always look up on the mantle and see the little National Book Award statue, or look to the shelf and see the books with nice little blurbs, or reflect upon the readings they gave at AWP or elsewhere and remember the people lined up to buy their book–and think, “Well, at least I was doing something right at some point….”
The motivation for the lesser published, or the non-published has to come from somewhere else. For some, it seems to spring from some never-ending fount of inspiration that knows no troughs, no sputtering delays. Those writer annoy me. I’ve got into semi-arguments with them where they say, “If I didn’t love writing, I wouldn’t do it, and I can’t see how you can write if you don’t love writing all the time, everyday. It’s more important than air, water, cake. I can’t live if I don’t write.” Phooey on that.
The world doesn’t care if I write and I’d do just fine if I wasn’t writing. There are plenty of other activities with which I could fill my time. Writing is not simply turning on the light and watching the words find their home on your blank page. Its really about faith overcoming doubt. Faith and doubt, at least in my writing life, go hand in hand. The faith requires work (daily or routine action, sitting at the desk, working somehow, in some large or small fashion, in the act of creating) and doubt requires strength and patience (working through those crappy sentences, trusting the process of draft and revision) and fortitude (belief that indeed, what you are doing has value).
It’s always been up and down with me. Two weeks ago, at the AWP conference, it was up. Letting AWP happen, letting the voices of all those writers drift over and through me, left me feeling buoyed and alive with writing. Now, I’m back to normal, back to work, back to real life and family and the exhaustion of daily chores. Writing is not so rosy or glamorous now. It’s this thing I have to do. Or want to do. Or feel compelled to do when what my body and half-my-brain are telling me to sit down and turn on Iron Chef America, and just relax, wouldya, for the love of Pete? It’s getting up a little earlier and attempting to involve myself in the process of writing, to make my life a literary one. I did recently sell a story to Eclipse Literary Review, which is always an exciting two minutes (and after the initial boo-yaa of joy, my writer brain immediately enters panic mode: what if this is the last best thing I’ll ever write?). It’s balancing teaching and writing and all those things. It’s the daily grind right now, where I (and all those other writers who are writing because…well, because they don’t know why, that’s why, can you lay off with the fifth degree?
The inspiration must come from some unexpected inner resource.
If not there, then where?