Saturday, December 15, 2012

Writing Craft: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I found myself reading a kindred spirit in the writing style of Wells Tower. Tower takes a comprehensive approach to character development and story complexity, with the attitude of a fellow Gen Xer. Well-written subject matter carried a dark subtext, but not usually of some harrowing violence or a macabre scene – though the unusual title story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” certainly filled that role, following a violent story of Viking invaders with hints of fantasy and speaking in current day vulgarity. These were stories about every day real people living real lives in the face of adversity and challenging interpersonal relationships.

The stories all fit the slice of life style I studied in college twenty-plus years ago, though much more developed and filled out. The darkest element was what was not written; the ambiguity. The stories ended with little-to-no closure after setting up tense scenes, elaborate intertwining storylines, and characters the reader can easily become vested in. For example, in the story “On the Show” we are left wondering if the perpetrator of an awful child-molestation act at a carnival is caught during the on-going police investigation. While the story follows the momentary lives of several characters at the carnival, his identity is casually revealed near the end as he thinks about his wife and daughter following a cattle competition he had just hosted:
But he doesn’t care for the pointless velocity of the carnival amusements. Looking out at the whirling skyline of the fair, he can’t help thinking about all the earth you could move, all the beef you could haul with so much fuel and good steal. He thinks, too, of last night, of the boy in the Honeypot, and feels a pleasant ache, like being rasped on the back of the sternum with a jeweler’s file. There’s a want in him to take a stroll around, but he pushes it down. (Nook Ed., p. 148)
With exception to the title story, I found myself struggling to accept the stories’ endings; I wasn’t ready to finish when they did. The lush prose and witty language made for compelling page turning, but the endings left too much unresolved.

I did something I don’t normally do when I write a book response or review: I read some online reviews by other readers to see how they responded as I work my way through my own takeaways. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was loved by many readers though a handful disliked the lack of closure displaying the same feelings I had when I finally put the book down. Going back to my original point, it’s what wasn’t written that caught my attention. It was intentional to create discomfort, depicting the uncertainty of the real world. Not everything has a clean ending, or an ending at all, as we move through time and space interacting with each other.

As far as writing craft goes, it’s difficult for me to find specific focus on what I may have gained from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned as I did from other recent books this year. His writing style shares many craft elements to my own. I will say this, though, it gave me a new respect for taking chances, particularly leaving stories intentionally open-ended. And it has spurred a new thought-process worth considering in forcing the reader to make connections and draw conclusions. I’m sure a few readers were put off for this reason, but I embraced it the trust and confidence Tower put on me.

Contemplating Newtown

Heavy sorry looms over the only state I have ever known as home. Twenty-four hours ago, an incomprehensible act of senseless violence took place in the nearby town of Newtown, Connecticut, a town I have always been fond of. We spent a lot of time there while living in neighboring Southbury. Some of our favorite restaurants, a barbershop I frequented, our bank, even our favorite dairy farm ice cream stand call Newtown home. It’s a town where some friends of past and present now reside as well as some of my cousins, and a community my wife and I have considered living in over the years.

Now when I turn on the news reporting on the tragedy, I recognize in the background little spots of normalcy, places we’ve enjoyed or just know in passing, corrupted my bright news camera lights setting the stage for the latest horrific details to be revealed. I know a few people whose loved-ones bore witness to this tragedy, including a teacher and a few students – all safe and unharmed – forever touched by this event. Another friend’s professional mentor and friend was not so fortunate, sadly.

Last night on my drive home from work as I approached Newtown along I-84, helicopter lights became apparent in the distance; more numerous as I passed by the Sandy Hook area. The exit ramp for Sandy Hook was barricaded confusing the drivers ahead of me as I listened to the governor’s emotional speech from the Sandy Hook firehouse. A surreal moment and harsh reminder of a complicated and difficult day to comprehend.

Like Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, Newtown, or more specifically the beautiful small community of Sandy Hook, will carry a tragic and unfortunate mark in the American conscience. Let’s not remember it only by name, thought, let us remember each of the victims, including everyone who lived through it, and their families, and help them move forward with their lives.

No political arguments on gun control or religion in school will bring back the innocent lives lost; nor will they prevent further tragedies of this nature. All Americans need to come to an agreement that these violent acts cannot continue and look at the root causes. Untreated mental illness, easy access to legal and illegal firearms – we as a society need to change what we are doing in these areas, because our current actions are not working.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Antithesis of Creativity

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Immersed in a whirlpool of ideas, some good, some worth dropping off a cliff to the jagged rocks below, still others leading to publication or other successes, creativity abounds in all of us. It’s how we use that energy, how we channel it into our passions that defines us as artists or strategists or inventors or a number of other creative-based professions. When we are fearless, we are at our best.

It’s that moment when we let apprehension stand in our way; when we let self-doubt consume our inspirations; when we allow aversion to risk-taking to override our passions. That moment when the reaper positions his queen with that bony hand to proclaim checkmate. Fear is the consummate eternal when we grant it the opportunity.

Fear comes in many valid forms: an explosion at a chemical factory, an out-of-control eighteen-wheeler on a busy highway, an angry dictatorial boss, the wrong end of a gun. All physical, all legitimate. Even a zombie invasion should one occur. It’s the fear in our heads that restrains us, prevents us from taking ownership of our ideas, of executing an idea as the lingering possibility of retribution or disappointment hangs six inches in front of our noses. That is the antithesis of creativity, which has claimed so many unwritten stories and unperformed songs. And it lives in our collective subconscious, both culturally and individually.

Those lucky fortunate few who have made a killing following their creativity passions, those people we are fans of and consume everything they produce. We love them, we want to emulate them and collect everything they’ve ever touched. We hang on their every last words. We wonder: How did they do it? Right place at the right time? Perhaps. More than likely, they took control of fear. They did not listen to the naysayers – themselves the products of internalized fear – they channeled that energy into their passions, they took risks knowing that at any moment we may reject them. Through every mountain and canyon, they persevered.

Bottom line: we are products of ourselves, we are our own creators. We define what we put out there, assuming we take the first step allowing our viscera to be exposed. The sad reality is, most of us are willing to give in without a fight. Don’t do that.

Push forward. Follow your passion. Create.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Elusive Focus

What to write? So many ideas, so little time to record them all. They ebb and flow, some stick, others slip back into the ocean. Focus is key, when I can find it. Focus with the ability to filter. I often find my focal point is a puddle of pulsating slime, not very clear, as you could imagine. It slithers as only slime can along a broken concrete and dirt floor, eluding me when I need it most. And when do I need it most? Now.

Here I am, fixated on closing a story for the second time. The first closing opened new doors. Funny how that works. This welcome weight I have hoisted over my shoulders, carrying it on end much like a Scottish games competitor, I am working desperately for the sake of my sanity to bring closure to this story again. Now my focus is a twelve-foot maple tree trunk I need to throw as far as possible. Without damaging anything.

My focus is damaged. It just is. I have no explanation. It reminds me of the astigmatism I used to have in both eyes – I had Lasik. Unfortunately, Lasik doesn’t sharpen conscious thought. It morphs from one form to another without warning, sometimes holding my subconscious hostage as my superego tells it it’s not very nice and should stop that. Yeah, that superego is too gentle, too nice, too outside of my general area of focus. Is that what it is? Attention deficit?

As I sit here tapping out S-O-S in Morse code, for all the wrong trivial reasons, I am crystalizing my ideas, my intent to close the story, or at least current storyline. That more than likely is the thing that is stirring my brain non-stop: the story is not meant to be short. It has become a living entity, and I need to nurture it some more before I drop it off a cliff where it will return to its primordial ooze state of self-being. Or as I like to call it, the slime found on smooth rocks covered in algae and mollusks. What am I writing?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Writing Craft: Pastoralia by George Saunders

Whimsical, stream-of-consciousness run-on sentences portraying the inner workings of defective people facing situations outside of their comfort zones. Darkly humorous and grimly serious, George Saunders’s short story collection Pastoralia was unusual to read and hard to put down. Saunders nails the flawed protagonist’s portrayal in every story: egocentrics searching for self-esteem, self-deprecating narcissists looking for love, the last minutes of a troubled boy’s life, and a theme park living-history performer trying to get through serious life circumstances in the most mundane manner possible in a mockery of corporate America.

Saunders writes a seamless blend of inner thoughts and actions of the outside world. By varying run-ons with short abrupt sentences, he creates an organic portrayal of harsh reality in his characters’ observation of their worlds. Consider the following monologue from a motivational speaker helping an audience rid themselves of problem people from their lives in the story “Winky.”
“A certain someone, a certain guy who shall remain nameless, was doing quite a bit of crapping in my oatmeal, and simply because he’d had some bad luck, simply because he was in some pain, simply because, actually, he was in a wheelchair, this certain someone expected me to put my life on hold while he crapped in my oatmeal by demanding round-the-clock attention, this brother of mine, Gene, and whoops, there goes that cat out of the bag, but does this sound maybe paradoxical? Wasn’t he the one with the crap in his oatmeal, being in a wheelchair? Well, yes and no. Sure, he was hurting. No surprise there. Guy drops a motorcycle on a gravel road and bounces two hundred yards without a helmet, yes, he’s going to be somewhat hurting. But how was that my fault?” (45)
The setup of the speaker’s story is drawn out, like he is stumbling through his thoughts, though it’s all intentional from a motivational perspective. As the scope narrows to the point, “how was that my fault?” sentences constrict themselves driving the point’s emphasis home.

A similar structure appears in the following passage from the title story “Pastoralia,” in which the corporate leadership sends out one of many memos to the living history performers in a theme park. It starts out short, becomes quite long, then reigns itself in. It is a bit long, but well-worth reading.
Regarding the rumors you may have lately been hearing, it says. Please be advised that they are false. They are so false that we consider not even bothering to deny them. Because denying them would imply that we actually heard them. Which we haven’t. We don’t waste time on such nonsense. And yet we know that if we don’t deny the rumors we haven’t heard, you will assume they are true. And they are so false! So let us just categorically state that all the rumors you’ve been hearing are false. Not only the rumors you’ve heard, but also those you haven’t heard, and even those that haven’t yet been spread, are false. However, there is one exception to this, and that is if the rumor is good. That is, if the rumor presents us, us up here, in a positive light, and our mission, and our accomplishments, in that case, and in that case only, we will have to admit that the rumor you’ve been hearing is right on target, and congratulate you on your fantastic powers of snooping, to have found out that secret super thing! In summary, we simply ask you ask yourself, upon hearing a rumor: Does this rumor cast the organization in a negative light? If so, that rumor is false, please disregard. If positive, super, thank you very much for caring so deeply about your organization that you knelt with your ear to the track, and also, please spread the truth far and wide, that is, get down on all fours and put your lips to the tracks. Tell your friends. Tell friends who are thinking of buying stock. Do you have friends who are journalists? Put your lips to their tracks. (41)
Even though this is satire, I feel like I have come across similar self-aggrandizing corporate communications in the past, talking in circles, using many words to say so little. In this passage, the shorter, more specific sentences seem to be where the truth actually lies – the negative rumors. Whereas the positive rumors the author refers to are stumbling streams of thought aiming for justification by quantity of words.

Returning to the story “Winky,” this style of writing is used to depict the protagonist’s state of mind after finishing his session with the motivational speaker. His limited perception of wealth and his lack of worldliness are revealed through the process. Both humorous and sympathetic.
Yaniky had walked home in a frenzy, gazing into shop windows, knowing that someday soon, when he came into these shops with his sexy wife, he’d simply point out items with his riding crop and they would be loaded into his waiting Benz, although come to think of it, why a riding crop? Who used a riding crop? Did you use a riding crop on the Benz? Ho, man, he was stoked! He wanted a Jag, not a Benz! Golden statues of geese, classy vases, big porcelain frogs, whatever, when his ship came in he’d have it all, because when he was stoked nothing could stop him. (53)
The tragic story “The End of Firpo in the World” brilliantly captures the racing imagination of a mischievous, troubled boy, Cody, as he plans a prank on his neighbors while quickly riding his bicycle around the block to assess the situation. Again, it’s long, but showing an abridged form would not do it justice.
Well, it would be revenge, sweet revenge, when he stuck the lozenge stolen from wood shop up the Dalmeyers’ water hose, and the next time they turned the hose on it exploded, and all the Dalmeyers, even Dad Dalmeyer, stood around in their nice tan pants puzzling over it like them guys on Nova. And the Dalmeyers were so stupid they would conclude that it had been a miracle, and would call some guys from a science lab to confirm the miracle and one of the lab guys would flip the wooden lozenge into the air and say to Dad Dalmeyer, You know what, a very clever Einstein lives in your neighborhood and I suggest that in the future you lock this hose up, because in all probability this guy cannot be stopped. And he, Cody, would give the lab guy a wink, and later, as they were getting into the lab van, the lab guy would say, Look, why not come live with us in the experimental space above our lab and help us discover some amazing compounds with the same science brain that apparently thought up this brilliant lozenge, because, frankly, when we lab guys were your age, no way, this lozenge concept was totally beyond us, we were just playing with baby toys and doing baby math, but you, you’re really something scientifically special. (79)
So, what did I take away from the book that I can carry into my own writing? Like I concluded after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a few months ago, breaking the conventions of proper sentence structure and grammar, the writing craft alone creates the mood and environment in which the story exists. The run-on sentences contrasted with the short abrupt statements, in this case, create a natural duality reflective of how people think and perceive the world. One idea begets the next idea, which opens a tangential thought and so on. The pathetic and tragic characters of Saunders’s stories, as whimsical as they appear, are real enough that I don’t question their identities and authenticity. My take-away is simple: creatively (i.e. break the rules) use the craft as appropriate for the story to give it credence; don't hold back.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Writing Craft: The Delicate Prey by Paul Bowles

Dark subjects driven by the dark psychology of the characters rooted in a common thread of loneliness. The short stories of The Delicate Prey are best described as “messed up” as someone noted in a short review I spotted on Good Reads. Artfully written bringing early twentieth century Latin America to life, contrasting the natural beauty of the land with the less-than-desirable living conditions of the locals.

An element of racism exists among those of Spanish descent toward the native people – known simply as Indians – adding to the tensions and demeanor of the characters, providing a sense of entitlement for some to act upon their ill intentions. In the first story, “At Paso Rojo,” an upper-class woman, Chalía, and her sister, visit their brother’s ranch after their mother has died. Chalía makes a game of emotionally manipulating and injuring a young Indian man who works for her brother. The specific root of behavior is not apparent beyond her open discrimination toward the Indians, though we learn of lying and deceptive behaviors through the story, and her desire to control others. The following passage paints a vivid portrait of Chalía’s diabolical nature.
Something dark lying in the road ahead of her made her stop walking. It did not move….as she drew near, she knew it was Roberto. She touched his arm with her foot. He did not respond. She leaned over and put her hand on his chest. He was breathing deeply, and the smell of liquor was almost overpowering. She straightened and kicked him lightly in the head. There was a tiny groan from far within. This also, she said to herself, would have to be done quickly. She felt wonderfully light and powerful as she slowly maneuvered his body with her feet to the right-hand side of the road. There was a small cliff there, about twenty feet high. When she got him to the edge, she waited a while, looking at his features in the moonlight. His mouth was open a little, and the white teeth peeked out from behind the lips. She smoothed his forehead a few times and with a gentle push rolled him over the edge. He fell very heavily, making a strange animal sound as he hit. (P. 18)
 “The Scorpion” was probably one of the strangest stories I read, and the most thought provoking. Two sons had left their elderly mother to live in a cave they dug out of clay for an undetermined length of time. She was left to survive with a bare minimum of supplies, her dreams, and her memories. Surrounded by scorpions in the walls and constant dripping water, she adapts to her solitude.
There were many things about this life that the old woman liked. She was no longer obliged to argue and fight with her sons to make them carry wood to the charcoal oven. She was free to move about at night and look for food. She could eat everything she found without having to share it. And she owed no one any debt of thanks for the things she had in her life. (P. 103)
Finally, one of her sons arrives to retrieve her, he seems surprised that either she is still there or alive; she refuses to leave at first. We don’t know why he is there for her, but it is clear their relationship is not good as she is not even sure of his identity.
One dark day he looked up to see one of her sons standing in the doorway. She could not remember which one it was, but she thought it was the one who had ridden the horse down the dry river bed and nearly been killed. She looked at his hand to see if it was out of shape. It was not that son. (P. 103)
We never learn the names of the old woman nor her son, not even the anonymous old man who sits outside the cave occasionally without any interaction. Her closest interaction with another person is built on isolation:
One old man used to come from the village on his way down to the valley, and sit on a rock just distant enough from the cave for her to recognize him. She knew he was aware of her presence in the cave there, and although she probably did not know this, she disliked him for not giving some sign that he knew she was there. (P. 103)
We can only surmise the reason the old woman was sent to live in a cave by her two resentful sons far outside of town was that it was intended to be her tomb. What we do learn is implied through actions and the bitter dialogue; the specifics about their estrangement are clear. It’s best summed up in this exchange at the close of the story as the son leads his mother out of the cave and the surprised old man sitting nearby says “good-bye”:
“Who is that?” said her son.
“I don’t know.”
Her son looked back at her darkly.
“You’re lying,” he said. (P. 106)
Interestingly, the story “The Fourth Day Out from Santa Cruz” paints a dark portrait of loneliness and despondency not unlike the other stories, but with a happy ending, as happy as one could expect in the circumstances. A young man named Ramón signed on to the crew of a ship, working in the scullery.
Except for the orders they gave him in the kitchen, the sailors behaved as if he did not exist. They covered his bunk with dirty clothes, and lay on it, smoking, at night when he wanted to sleep. They failed to include him in any conversation, and so far no one had even made an allusion, however deprecatory, to his existence. (P. 106-107)
During a stopover in a port town, Ramón searches for the crew after he has finished cleaning the kitchen, hours after the crew had left the ship. He finds a group of them in a café. The following scene captures the anguish and anger Ramón confronts as it continues to build to a climax:
Ramón turned around and sat down suddenly at a small table. The waiter came an served him, but he scarcely noticed what he was drinking. He was watching the table with the six men from his ship. Like one fascinated, he let his eyes follow each gesture: the filling of the little glasses, the tossing down the liquor, the back of the hand wiping the mouth. And he listened to their words punctuated by loud laughter. Resentment began to swell in him; he felt that if he sat still any longer he would explode. Pushing back his chair, he jumped up and strode dramatically out into the street. No one noticed his exit. (P. 108)
As Ramón continues to find ways draw the sailors’ attention to no avail, he sees an opportunity during their fourth day out at sea. A tired bird far from land is desperate to land on the ship’s deck, but the gawking crew scares it from doing so. As they place bets on the bird’s fate, Ramón brings out the ship’s mascot, a large cat, and trains the cat’s focus on the bird to attempt to catch it. The sailors are impressed.

In a situation that appeared to be leading to some type of violent act of Ramón’s doing was cleverly displayed by the cat attempting to catch the bird without success. Yet, Ramón is awarded with the acceptance from his crewmates he craved.

At noonday meal they talked about it. After some argument the bets were paid. One of the oilers went to his cabin and brought out a bottle of cognac and a set of little glasses which he put in front of him and filled, one after the other.
“Have some?” he said to Ramón.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Semi-Subconscious Self Portrait

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Drawing inspiration from the mundane, regular, everyday type of stuff that surrounds us; average, unnoticed, omnipresent. That’s where I find the strange, the scary, the peculiar, the horrific. Much like the carnival sideshows of decades past, showcasing oddities and mysteries, my brain is both spectator and showman when I write. That sounds so esoteric and pompous, I suppose, so ridiculous yet it defines my creative process. I can only be egalitarian to a point, as far as my humble nature allows before I fall victim to self-induced humility and fall into that downward spiral that is routine nature.

Somehow, this rambling makes sense to my subconscious and my ego is enthralled. One day I may learn a thing or two from my subconscious, the distant world where all of my creativity stems from. It’s the well-fertilized part of my being, complete with a robust composting system providing nourishment and enrichment.

Confused? Me too, maybe to a lesser degree. This is my brain in raw action, after all, translated into words that a reader can understand.

Otherwise, if my mind was to get with the program, the doldrums of everyday work and life becomes the routine norm where innovation is scoffed at and free expression is shunned. The thick skin of humility blockades the acceptance of compliments, accolades, and accomplishments. We accept only what we have been taught in school about being nothing more than a number in the system, a little cog in a great machine, the pawn the corporation sees as expendable and thrown into the basement to work next to the boiler room. These things really happen, some figuratively, some literally, others fictional. You get the point. I think.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Finding Closure

Sandy's leftover clouds in Massachusetts
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I finally found a way to close a story that has been alive and with me – in the developmental sense – for fifteen months. It’s the longest, most complex story I have ever written, still qualifying as a short story or novella, depending on who’s rules you follow. It really makes no difference to me. The challenge was whether I wanted the protagonist to redeem herself, to live to see another story, despite her horrific actions and questionable behavior. My final answer: a resounding yes.

It’s amazing how vested I became with the character. I’ve heard of authors who take on extraordinary experiences to get inside a character’s head and comprehend their wisdom. I wonder how often writers find themselves questioning the fate of their characters, do they decide to kill their darlings or give them a second chance?

Series obviously allow a main character to live on, otherwise they wouldn’t work, unless there is something out there I don’t know about. Whatever the case, an entire industry of fiction based franchises exists for this reason alone. I’m not necessarily out to accomplish this, however. But I wouldn’t complain if I found myself there one day. Perhaps I am nascent, having been out of the writing loop for several years to focus on my initial visual arts career and start a family. It doesn’t matter, in the grand scheme, as my rugged individualist nature leads me down the path of nonconformity.

So back to this idea of finding closure. It’s not true closure, per se, it’s a turning point. An opportunity to end one chapter to begin the next. I know, not a profound thought, but authentic nonetheless. Closure of a storyline is more important for the audience, no one likes to be strung along and left hanging as the story ends. I hate when this happens to me as a reader or movie watcher. Closure is an obligation to the reader, so the author’s career may live to see another day.

Here I am, running in circles with these recent blog posts, finding all roads lead to Rome, so to speak. Finding closure is in line with my self-exploration in fighting creative fear and writing for the reader. So, why I am writing this? Besides the catharsis it provides to get it all out there, I’m thinking maybe others will realize they are not along in their struggles as they endeavor to be masters of the craft. If nothing else, it’s a small contribution I am happy to offer.

How many clichés can you count in this post? It surprises me how easy they are to write when not thinking about it, but that’s for another blog entry another day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Writing Craft: Love and Hydrogen by Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard’s collection of stories is a unique mix of heavily flawed characters, dysfunctional families, early twentieth century military and engineering feats, classic horror movies, and dark humor. His stories take unconventional approaches to a variety of taboo and uncomfortable subjects, of which I am focusing on the stories portraying the protagonists or cast of characters near death.

A self-deprecating husband tells the first story in the collection, “The Gun Lobby,” in the present tense as his gun-crazy wife holds him hostage during a standoff with law enforcement. The scene is a catalyst for the protagonist to reflect on his marriage and his personal failures with a strange sense of calm and humor, in which they can watch themselves on the local news shortly before meeting their probable demise:

“Here” is Waterbury, Connecticut, which is right now the main show in terms of the cutaway news, because of the standoff. You can see Stephanie or me, the Hostage, at the windows every so often on TV. We watch ourselves. (Kindle Loc. 89-91)
I’ve been a problem baby, a lousy son, a distant brother, an off-putting neighbor, a piss-poor student, a worrisome seatmate, an unreliable employee, a bewildering lover, a frustrating confidant, and a crappy husband. Among the things I do pretty well at this point I’d have to list darts, reclosing Stay-Fresh boxes, and staying out of the way.   (Kindle Loc. 147-150)

As the story reaches its climax, the seriousness of the situation is down played with lighthearted metaphors and observational wisdom:

I have a hold of Stephanie’s ankle. For the longest time I’m not hurt. Her rate of fire is spectacular. The ordnance coming back at us sets everything in the kitchen into electric life. Our overhead fixture’s doing a tarantella. (Kindle Loc. 228-229)
There are events in which every second can be taken out of line, examined this way and that, and then allowed to move along. This is one of them. (Kindle Loc. 230-231)

The title story “Love and Hydrogen,” set in the Hindenburg over the last few days of its final voyage told in the present tense, follows the homosexual relationship between two crew members: Meinert, a German war vet who took pride in his bombing raids on England and France, a Gnüss, who is much younger, jealous, and infatuated with Meinert. The tension displayed from Gnüss’s perspective of their relationship is filled with fond memories of their love and Meinert’s war stories. As the drama plays out the dark humor creeps in at unexpected moments juxtaposed against the reader’s relentless knowledge that the Hindenburg would soon meet its fate:

Egk is a fat little man with boils. Meinert considers him to have been well named. (Kindle Loc. 277-278)
[Gnüss] goes below and stops by the crew’s quarters. No luck. He listens in on a discussion of suitable first names for children conceived aloft in a zeppelin. The consensus favors Shelium, if a girl. (Kindle Loc. 411-413)

Ultimately, Gnüss’s despondency and jealousy brings down the zeppelin and everyone aboard:

Inside the hangarlike hull, they can feel the gravitational forces as Captain Pruss brings the ship up to the docking mast in a tight turn. The sharpness of the turn overstresses the after-hull structure, and the bracing wire bolt that Gnüss overtightened snaps like a rifle shot. The recoiling wire slashes open the gas cell opposite. Seven or eight feet above Gnüss’s alarmed head, the escaping hydrogen encounters the prevailing St. Elmo’s fire playing atop the ship. (Kindle Loc. 475-478)
The fireball explodes outward and upward, annihilating Gnüss at its center. More than 100 feet below on the axial catwalk, as the blinding light envelops everything below it, Meinert knows that whatever time has come is theirs, and won’t be like anything else. (Kindle Loc. 479-481)

The final story of the collection, “Climb Aboard the Mighty Flea,” follows a small squadron of German soldiers during World War II who stopped caring about the war. Their job was to fly the “Messerschmitt 163 [the Komet], the first manned rocket-powered aircraft, the first aircraft in the world to exceed a thousand kilometers an hour in level flight, and in statistical terms the most dangerous aircraft ever built in a series.” (Kindle Loc. 4593-4595) They were intended as a line of defense to take down Allied bombers over Germany, albeit with poor effectiveness. Their lives were built around the high risks in piloting these rockets during testing and training exercises:

So? we said to ourselves. Everyone knew that learning to fly meant little more than learning to land.

But pilots are taught to land by flying alongside instructors. There was no room for two in these things. So we’d have to be told, rather than shown.

“Does the landing,” Ziegler asked in a classroom session, “have to be perfect?”

“No,” Wörndl shrugged. “You could die, instead.” (Kindle Loc. 4663-4667)

 As the story goes, a number of pilots die horrible deaths or experience grave injuries. Yet, it carries on in Shepard’s light-hearted and sometimes grotesque manner:

The cockpit was filled with a black-and-red-and-yellow soup. The yellow looked like chicken fat. The fuel cells had shattered and the fuel had poured into the cockpit. Those who understood explained it to those who still didn’t: Glogner had been dissolved alive. (Kindle Loc. 4724-4726)
The next Komet exploded on the flight line. When we reached the spot, there was only a blackened and steaming stain. Medical personnel found a bone fragment, and brought it in on a stretcher. (Kindle Loc. 4733-4734)
Rösle’s Komet flipped on landing just before the perimeter. It didn’t explode and he was pulled from it just conscious, but pints of the fuel had run over his back while he hung there, and when they tore off the flight suit, the skin underneath was a jelly. He was on enough painkillers to last until April. (Kindle Loc. 4827-4829)

The collective psychology of the squadron enters a mix of depression and isolation. They adopt a gallows humor to cope with the near-death risks of their job while celebrating their love for the Komets:

My turn came next. “Come come come, Baby Bird,” Uhlhorn said as I held up my straw. “Your one-six-three-B is steaming and ready to blow. We need to put you in it or it will blow up for no reason.” (Kindle Loc. 4735-4736)
We are all insomniacs. We are, as a group, a picturesque compendium of physical tics. (Kindle Loc. 4779)
WHEN I WAKE there’s an impromptu celebration and meeting around my bunk. It transpires that Wörndl’s Komet caught fire right above the field. He had to bail out forty meters from the treetops and his parachute caught the upper branches of a big pine, insuring he only cracked his ankle. He tells everyone that it was like jumping off a church steeple with an umbrella. (Kindle Loc. 4823-4826)

In conclusion, I could discuss this collection for endless hours, as the stories are rich in vivid content and unusual circumstances. I highly recommend Love and Hydrogen to anyone who enjoys the art of short fiction.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Writing for the Reader in Me

See this on my Instagram account

I have heard countless times since returning to writing and pursuing my MFA degree “write for yourself.” Coming from the profession I have spent my whole career in, the target audience has always been the first influence on work I have created. So the reader, naturally, is someone I want to write for, never mind the fact that I don’t know many of my readers – if there are even many outside of this blog.

Every writer must have experienced the exhilaration of reading their own work after some time has passed at least once. It’s like a whole other person produced it; a deliberate subconscious separation to a completed story that allows the writer to read it for the first time. It’s a beautiful thing.

Since I don’t have a specified audience for fiction in this embryonic stage, I write about subjects that excite and interest me, maybe scare me, and often stuff I want to learn more about. For example, I have never worked in a circus or government office, so a character I create may be campaigning for a local office or a veteran sideshow performer.

Then there is that old adage “write what you know,” which I do fair amount of. Thing is, some of what I know isn’t necessarily based on first-hand experience, some of it is observational and intuitive. I was never a patient in a psychiatric hospital nor have I committed a murder, but pulling from what I know about these subjects based on research and observation, I can place my head in those spaces and become those flawed characters, in the figurative sense. I know how they think and feel, whether they are rational or irrational, what they base their decisions on. They become real live humans in my brain and on the page. This is probably normal for any writer, perhaps all creative-types; I don’t know, I never asked. Whatever the case, it’s part of my writer’s tool box.

So I write for myself now with the intention that other people of similar mind and dysfunction will appreciate it – maybe even love it! It’s working out so far with another short story this year due to publish soon in an anthology about demons.

Tell me about you. I’m always interested in learning how others think about these topics. Do you write or create for yourself or others? Do you become your characters who deviate widely from your real life?

Happy November!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fighting Creative Fear

In my latest writing ventures, I find myself once again staring down the dead eyes of fear. The polar opposite to creativity when the so-called writer’s block has taken hold. Thing is, it’s not a block, it’s confronting the wide-open unknown. In one aspect, I am playing god with my characters in a fiction piece whose outcomes have been conceived and reconceived several times over while pondering the structure of a nonfiction book. I have confronted fear on numerous occasions, never submitting to it. Yet, I still find myself here.

Some days I wish my life were as simple as coming home from work, turning on the TV, and eventually going to bed. That simplicity would make me crazy. It’s an escapist thought to avoid this inevitable confrontation. Better thought: escape to Disney World for a day or a year. It’s easy to avoid fear, to let it win. And then what – spend a lifetime burying my head and cowering in the corner?

So, what’s the point of me writing this. I’m sure you’re wondering that as I am. To confront fear in the creative sense. To realize, to affirm, to share the lesson that creativity dies when fear fills the void. Embrace the unknown; mold it in your mind’s image. Create your world before bloodless zombies scare it out of you. Hold a pep rally, fall asleep at the bar, enter altered states of dementia; whatever motivates you. Just try not to harm anyone in the process. My point is – as I beat it into my own subconscious – you need to maintain control, kill some zombies, and spend a well-deserved week at Disney because those monstrous writing projects are complete and on their way to publication. Until then, never give in. Let creativity reign.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writing Craft: Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

The collection of short stories of Jesus’ Son is something of a paradox. The graceful and poetic language portrays dark and depressing situations occupied by people at their lowest points performing despicable acts. Fluid and sensuous prose carry the narrative forward effortlessly; the time it takes to read the book becomes irrelevant. This was my first time reading Denis Johnson’s work, and not knowing anything about him, I wondered if these vivid stories were pulled from real-life experiences. Either way, I was captivated.

Johnson makes a hospital orderly moving through his day in the story “Emergency” on a drug high sound warm and simple. He seemed to have reached a heightened state of bliss among a bleak and stressful world, while the dire risks of his actions were always prevalent.

Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. (Loc. 694-696)

Duality is consistently portrayed in an illustrative storytelling motif throughout the stories through an inebriated perception of people and self, and their relationships to the environment. This is a polar extreme to the clichéd my head felt like a balloon and floated from my body and over the green pastures type of hack:

Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground. (Loc. 39-40)
It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller. (Loc. 451-453)

All senses are engaged. Johnson places the reader in the environment through deliberate figurative prose. Landscape description appear frequently, along with the integration of nature, setting the tone of the immediate physical world and then on a higher existential level consistent with the protagonist’s thought process. Consider these examples:

The road we were lost on cut straight through the middle of the world. It was still daytime, but the sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge. In this light the truck’s hood, which had been bright orange, had turned a deep blue. (Loc. 753-754) 
What word can be uttered about those fields? She stood in the middle of them as on a high mountain, with her red hair pulled out sideways by the wind, around her the green and grey plains pressed down flat, and all the grasses of Iowa whistling one note. (Loc. 567-568)

Descriptions of settings often take on a stream of consciousness quality through the protagonist’s altered perceptions while incorporating actions and people as part of the holistic environment. In this way, Johnson effectively animates common activities like riding on a ferryboat or a subway train:

The day was sunny, unusual for the Northwest Coast. I’m sure we were all feeling blessed on this ferryboat among the humps of very green—in the sunlight almost coolly burning, like phosphorus—islands, and the water of inlets winking in the sincere light of day, under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God, despite the smell, the slight, dreamy suffocation, of some kind of petroleum-based compound used to seal the deck’s seams. (Loc. 1000-1003)
I sat up front. Right beside me was the little cubicle filled with the driver. You could feel him materializing and dematerializing in there. In the darkness under the universe it didn’t matter that the driver was a blind man. He felt the future with his face. And suddenly the train hushed as if the wind had been kicked out of it, and we came into the evening again.(Loc. 948-951)

People are treated in a similar descriptive manner giving them identifiable realistic traits leaving no room to question their authenticity:

He stood hugging himself and talking down at the earth. The wind lifted and dropped her long red hair. She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had stranded her here. (Loc. 560-561) 
He walked with a bounce, his shoulders looped and his chin scooping forward rhythmically. He didn’t look right or left. I supposed he’d walked this route twelve thousand times. He didn’t sense or feel me following half a block behind him. (Loc. 920-921)

I found the following quote in “Happy Hour” fitting to wrap up my take on Jesus’ Son. By intention or not it seems Johnson was poking fun at the style of his writing and its juxtaposition to the subject matter:

I stayed in the library, crushed breathless by the smoldering power of all those words—many of them unfathomable—until Happy Hour. And then I left. (Loc. 1147-1148) 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Add to your Halloween reading: Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope

It's the season for all things dark, scary, and fun. If you haven't already done so, please consider adding our crazy book to your reading list. Help support a bunch of indie writers by purchasing Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope, a short story anthology filled with horror, dark humor, and intrigue, from Western Legends Publishing. You won't be sorry. It includes my short story "Johnny Versus the Creatures."


Western Legends: 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Art & Fear hit home

I wrote this response to Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland in January 2012 as part of my MFA Writing studies. Reading through it tonight I felt it was worth sharing on the blog. It's quite autobiographical and contains a few lessons in self-awareness and self-acceptance that anyone in a creative field must work through and overcome.

* * * 

Art & Fear is a fascinating book touching on several points throughout my professional and personal life. It has stirred up many thoughts and emotions, evoking memories of my artistic roots and where I find myself now, questioning my seemingly unorthodox path from aspiring artist to corporate communicator.

I have always been involved in the arts. Before I was ten I had already decided I would be an artist when I grew up. By the time I was in college I already had several years experience in making art: played guitar in rock bands, painted with oils, wrote short stories, wrote and performed at poetry slams, and shot, developed, and printed black and white 35 mm film. These passionate endeavors led to my pursuit of a BFA as a Fine Art major with the predetermined career path to become a professional artist.

The harsh reality hit shortly after graduation. Within a few months it became clear that digital media was replacing the traditional methods at a rapid rate. The local freelance creative job market was intensely competitive. Having found I was adept at using Photoshop I launched my career as a digital photo-retoucher building off my traditional education in painting and photography. Not quite the fine artist pursuit, but it satisfied my creative urges and paid the bills. Digital graphic design soon followed as I continued to expand my capabilities, eventually leading to web design and development.

It was never easy; I found myself stopping some of my much beloved creative disciplines, particularly writing and music, to focus my energies on becoming the best digital artist possible with no formal training in new media. Fortunately, in recent years writing has made a surprising re-entry in my life, now playing a dominant part of my profession.

Early in the book, the authors of Art & Fear explain the grim reality that ninety-eight percent of graduates with art degrees are set up to fail. A lack of preparation and education on the business of artmaking tends to be a problem in the art schools – it certainly was when I was a student. Art is an accepted profession in our country, but not an accepted occupation. As Bayles and Orland vividly point out, “if ninety-eight percent of our medical students were no longer practicing medicine five years after graduation, there would be a Senate investigation.” (11). I know too many such art grads who have failed in their artistic careers soon after college. Talented individuals who did not know how to make a living as artists, who did not know the right people at the right times, who did not know how to apply their talents and skills to a tangential profession outside of their comfort zone. Looking back it seems I was one of the fortunate few.

So here I am fifteen years later, as a web designer, as a business writer, as a professional communicator, I have never once deviated from the creative path I set out on in my teens. But I cannot call myself an artist. I have not primed a hand-stretched canvas or pressed an intaglio print in several years, but the knowledge of color, texture, form, composition, and storytelling is carried with me in the communication work I produce today. Writing a strategy requires a great deal of creative thinking, in both the over-arching concepts and the tactics to implement it. Creating a website is a multidisciplinary task involving skills in writing, design, user experience, and technology. Why should these sorts of works disqualify me from being an artist? I never technically quit; I evolved.

However, Bayles and Orland do write, “For most artists, making good art depends upon making lots of art, and any device that carries the first brushstroke to the next blank canvas has tangible, practical value.” (61) Any device … has tangible, practical value caught my attention, as in the medium and method do not matter as long as the artistic intent is there. Have I been an artist all along?

I have found myself in this gray area throughout my career. When I am asked what I studied in school, my answer is naturally fine art, and I get the funny look. How did I get here from there? Did I throw away my education and sell out? Of course not, I applied everything from my fine arts education to become what I am today, whatever that label might be.

Ultimately, what this book instilled in me was self-acceptance. I understand where I came from is not so unique; many aspiring artists have traveled this path. I am getting over the fear of calling myself an artist, a writer, or any other creative title. As long as I am true to myself, in my corporate communication job, or in my revitalized interest of becoming a professional writer, no one can take that away from me despite his or her level of acceptance or understanding. And I can live with that.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Revision in Everyday Life

One of my Instagram shots.
the author of this flyer didn't bother to proof read the headline.
It always surprises me how often I will come across writing in the professional and academic world that has not been thoroughly revised. I recall when I was in high school and college I had peers who were all about the one-and-done mentality, first draft purists, if you will, acting as if a second draft was infringing on their creative freedom and raw genius. I knew a girl who wrote poetry in high school, who would write poems on random sheets of paper in rough form and just leave them around the house to find and read at another time. I suggested to her that she collect the poems into a book and develop them – no, that would have ruined her creative process, I was told in some roundabout way.

A few weeks ago, I found myself explaining to my daughter, now in eighth grade, the importance of revision while helping her with homework. It’s a funny thing with her, she has raw writing talent, it appeared at a very young age, but she refuses to believe she is good at it and voices how she “hates it.” Thing is, after walking her through a few revision steps to help her with some creative and essay writing assignments for which revision was required, she was excited about the work she produced. She loved it as she read it aloud to my wife and me! Then she quickly moved on to some other non-related topic as thirteen-year-olds often do. I look forward to the day when she realizes her intrinsic talent in this area and enjoys it.

I’m not one to preach, but I will share this advice with anyone willing to listen. Revision is a strong tool not to be ignored, even if you are writing an email at work. Ever notice some emails from co-workers are written so well that they are short and to the point, you understand what the sender is communicating without effort and even feel that person’s mood come through? It’s a beautiful thing; anyone can pull it off with the slightest effort. Unfortunately, what I see more often than not are messages typed in a hurry filled with misspellings, texting-style shortcuts and ambiguity, sometimes responding with a single word answer to a series of questions with no clarity as to which question has been answered. This of course necessitates follow-up questions and turns into a lot of wasted back-and-forth time that could have been prevented by sending a clear message in the first place. The key: proofread what you wrote and revise as necessary, it doesn’t take long to do. And the larger scale the communication, the more critical this step becomes.

I know old habits dies hard, people are stuck in their ways. I get all that. But consider the simple tool of revision in your daily life as a way to help you get ahead and not waste your valuable time.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Writing Craft: Defining Noir

I love noir. It contains or shares elements of various genres I am drawn to and tend to write in, like disturbed and unusual psychological issues, dystopian themes, hard-boiled character-driven drama, brutal honesty, and gritty realism when it comes to the human condition. I selected several stories from The Best American Noir of the Century, a 731-page short story anthology edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler, for this craft-base blog entry.

The anthology is filled with so many great authors and stories I had a hard time deciding where to begin. As the anthology is assembled chronologically by publishing dates, I settled on the earliest works, ranging from 1923 to 1952, to determine what common threads exist between these various stories that classify them as noir. Otto Penzler explains in the Foreword, “noir … is virtually impossible to define, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. Like many other certainties, it is often wildly inaccurate.” I love this fact about this genre. Its definition seems to reside somewhere in our collective subconscious, an area where the darker side of humanity dwells and occasionally surfaces to disrupt everyday life. Penzler finished the Foreword by saying, “If you find light and hilarity in these pages, I strongly recommend a visit to a mental health professional.” I wouldn’t say I found anything light and hilarious, but I was fascinated by these stories.

Penzler’s statements issued a challenge: what defines noir and makes it so appealing? After reading the stories from Tod Robbins, James M. Cain, Steve Fisher, MacKinlay Kantor, Day Keene, Dorothy B. Hughes, Howard Browne, and Mickey Spillane, the common thread I found was a casual attitude toward death: either the thoughts of killing, driving someone to suicide, or following through with emotionally charged murder, with or without remorse.

In Tod Robbins’s “Spurs,” the short story that was the basis for the controversial 1933 film Freaks, Jacques Courbé, a seemingly harmless circus-performing dwarf, is capable of breaking his wife’s vitality and spirit in exchange for her teasing during their circus wedding and subsequent plans for his wealth. The beautiful, strong, and talented Jeanne Marie only married him for his inherited fortune, he quickly found out. She found him to be a joke as she was determined to keep him at bay and eventually cause his death and take ownership of his inheritance. A year after marriage when the circus was back in town, Jeanne Marie runs to the aid of her old boyfriend the charming bareback rider Simon Lafleur, the “circus Romeo,” to whom she planned to return to after Courbé was dead. Courbé, with the help of his wolf-dog companion whom was also his performance partner and mode of transportation, tracked them down and killed Lafleur.
M. Jaques Courbé cleansed his sword on a kerchief of lace, dismounted, and approached Jeanne Marie. She was still crouching on the floor, her eyes closed, her head held tightly between both hands. The dwarf touched her imperiously on the broad shoulder which had so often carried him.
“Madame,” he said, “we now can return home. You must be more careful hereafter. Ma foi, it is an ungentlemanly business cutting the throats of stable boys!”
In the 1946 story “The Homecoming,” by Dorothy B. Hughes, a strong jealous rage causes the protagonist, Benny, to kill his girlfriend Nan and an old war hero boyfriend who visits her after returning home from Korea. The whole story is focused on Benny’s jealously of Jim, the celebrated war hero and popular kid from high school, as he walks to Nan’s home, climaxing in their unintended deaths. At least he thought the murders were unintentional, despite carrying a gun to the home with the intention to put Jim in his place.
There were lights in most of the houses. You’d think the neighbors would have heard all the noise. Would have come running out to see what was going on. They probably thought it was the radio.

They should have come. If they had come, they’d have stopped him. He didn’t want to kill anyone. He didn’t want even to kill Jim. Just to scare him off. Just give him a scare.

She couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be, she couldn’t be, she couldn’t be. He sobbed the words into the wind and the dark and the dead brown leaves.
Mickey Spillane’s 1953 story “The Lady Says Die!” portrays a story of a wildly successful Wall Street broker, Duncan, an otherwise good man, who exacts revenge upon an old schoolmate and rival Walter Harrison who took his fiancée away from him through a course of one-upmanship and married her for a short time. He reveals to a detective over drinks his desires and the course of events that led to Walter’s death.
God, how I hated that man! I used to dream of killing him! Do you know, if ever my mind drifted from the work I was doing, I always pictured myself standing over his corpse with a knife in my hand, laughing my head off.
Playing off his rival’s weakness of getting everything he desired, a well-planned series of seemingly causal and innocent events drives Walter to suicide on the anniversary of the date he had stolen Duncan’s fiancée.

Interestingly, one story in this selection had self-awareness for the noir genre, in that human death could not occur as one might suspect. “Gun Crazy,” published in 1940 by MacKinlay Kantor, follows the life of Neslon Tare, who is obsessed with guns from the age of six. He develops amazing dexterity and shooting accuracy, eventually giving way to becoming an outlaw robbing banks and using his trick shooting skills to his advantage to evade capture. The twist, as is revealed by the characters who know him best having grown up with him, is that he cannot hurt a single living soul, he is incapable of shooting people or even rabbits during a hunting trip as a kid. This weakness leads to his eventual capture and imprisonment, and no one, surprisingly, dies.

“You’ll Always Remember Me,” by Steve Fisher, published in 1938, was perhaps the most disturbing of the stories I read. Told in the first person, the 14-year-old protagonist Martin Thorpe reveals his penchant for torturing and killing, both animals and humans. He has a history of being thrown out of schools for causing problems, only accepted into the current military school because his father is wealthy and paid double tuition. He feels remorse for the older brother of his girlfriend about to be executed for his father’s murder, the central theme of the story. However, Duff Ryan, a young detective, senses Thorpe is behind the murder, using a gruesome tactic to prove his suspicions.

Duff walks Thorpe to a chapel on the school campus discussing his violent past school records, beginning the conversation that they had a job to do, to "kill a kitten," one that had been severely injured by a car and Duff kept alive with an injection to reduce pain for this scene.
I could see the funny twist of his smile there in the moonlight. His face looked pale and somehow far away. He looked at the cat and petted it some more. I was still shaking. Scared, I guess.

He said, “Too bad we have to kill you, kitten, but it’s better than that pain.”

Then, all at once I thought he had gone mad. He swung the cat around and began batting its head against the pillar in the chapel. I could see the whole thing clearly in the moonlight, his arm swinging back and forth, the cat’s head being battered off, the bright crimson blood spurting all over.

He kept on doing it and my temples began to pound. My heart went like wildfire. I wanted to reach over and help him. I wanted to take that little cat and squeeze the living guts out of it. I wanted to help him smash its brains all over the chapel. I felt dizzy. Everything was going around. I felt myself reaching for the cat. 
With the awareness that Duff was testing him, he manages to restrain himself and not partake in the cat’s killing. Soon after, Thorpe is able to act on his desire to kill, when he pushes Pushton, a younger kid who plays the bugle each morning, out of a dormitory window to his death. Thorpe is eventually caught for the murder of his girlfriend’s father and takes pride in the fact that he cannot go to prison or be executed because of his young age, reform school was his only punishment. To his frustration however, no one believes he was behind the death of Pushton as much as he brags about it, as it was attributed to an accident.

The blatant unapologetic honesty of human desire and controlling the fates of other people’s lives is central to all of these stories. Filled with emotional and psychological complexities based around human relationships and perceptions, noir contains an incredible gamut of storylines and settings, each story as compelling, even more so, than the last. And the beauty of it all is that these stories are timeless, as human nature has not changed in the past century, if not millennium, and probably never will.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Carver’s realism in fiction

I don’t often find myself holding such deep empathy for characters as I did while reading a selection of Raymond Carver’s stories in Cathedral. The man was brilliant at capturing the human condition with stripped-down language and few words. He animated the ordinary and mundane; uninteresting people suddenly become complicated and intriguing characters on the page fueled by such strong emotions as loneliness, resentment, and grief.

As suspense continued to climb through each story, I kept wondering what a particular character was going to do next. In the story “Preservation,” I was waiting for the wife to snap in response to her depressed husband who spent three months on the couch after losing his job. I really thought at one point she was contemplating violence, yet, it’s never once suggested in the words on the page. Anger and frustration are portrayed through her actions and observations of her husband’s despondency, but it’s between the lines and paragraph breaks where her violent thoughts reside.

The underlying emotions and mental states in Carver’s stories are incredibly real, yet only touched upon in the words themselves, if at all, like the clichéd iceberg analogy I won’t bother to recite, you’ve heard it more than once. Likewise, I found similar empathetic responses in other stories, particularly the heavy grief-weighted sadness of “A Small, Good Thing.” It would not surprise me if this story had a reputation of drawing tears from readers. The fright of two parents coping with their severely injured child in the hospital and the unknown outcome is not an easy one to portray. This story left me in a somber mood; there was a lot to rationalize and digest.

So now, my self-imposed challenge is to accomplish at least half this reaction from readers of my own stories.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Writing Craft: Fun With Problems by Robert Stone

Over the past few weeks, I have been working my way through Fun With Problems, a collection of short stories by Robert Stone. These stories exist in the darker side of humanity, revealing layers of complexities of the human psyche. Characters are dreadfully flawed, typically with an abused substance lending to their conditions. Relationships are equally complicated, usually broken, as each character works through each other’s issues, whether as casual acquaintances or lovers, showing that every action contains a consequence.

I am drawn to complex personas in any story regardless of the medium – that includes premium cable channel serial dramas – I have never liked shallow characters that can be simply labeled as good or evil, I feel ripped off. Equally, being a visual person I am attracted to vivid descriptions of environments and settings. When these two qualities of a story play off each other, they strike a visceral nerve leading to a serotonin rush like no other.

In the title story, “Fun With Problems,” we find Peter Matthews, a divorced lawyer on in years who lives a solitary life in the Massachusetts countryside, a place he hates. He lives there because of the opportunity to make a living off the criminal element in the nearby rural areas that result in kids landing in the local jail, such as his incarcerated client he’s on his way to meet.
[The Hamptom] Valley was his native place, and he had been watching it all his life; its preachifying and its secret horror. The recently arrived professionals, academics and technologists, had brought to Hampton a self-conscious blessed assurance, unaware of the beatings, arson and murder that thrived in the hills around their white-trim shutters. Matthews knew the place’s black heart. It was his living.
A drunk in recovery who has not actually recovered, he inflicts his apathetic negativity on others as it fuels his meager egotism and depression. The dreariness of falling sleet and snow on a bleak town paint a vivid portrait of Matthews’s mind during his drive to the jail.

The famous jail, the red brick rat-house minarets attached to a new wing of frosted Martian glass, stood beside the river between a pair of old paper mills…. There were also a few shabby offices, headquarters to some social-services organizations. These were relics of the age of concern, grown decadent with underfunding, long on ideology and short on practical solutions. One scarred band specialized in raiding the migrant-pickers’ cockfights. A crazy poet did children’s theater the children dreaded.
Matthews, reminiscent and longing for his happier, earlier days with his ex-wife in the 1970s, much like the jail that houses the delinquents he serves, is the relic of the age of concern who has grown decadent. The prison conference setting further paints this portrait.
Matthews and his client conferred in a chapel in the jail’s old wing, a relic of gentler days. The chapel had been temporarily divided by partitions of wallboard and Plexiglas that reaches a third of the way to the ceiling and were being slowly vandalized.
It is in this setting he finds his quick fix, a younger woman who happens to be a psychologist, who was also on the wagon, whom he can corrupt with alcohol to gratify his loneliness, and wanton needs. All of this playing a more significant role than his responsibility to his wrongly incarcerated client.

In the last story of the collection, “The Archer,” we meet Duffy, a well-established and somewhat eccentric professional artist who teaches at a New England university. He was reputed to have threatened his ex-wife and lover, a fellow professor, with a crossbow. Over-consumption of alcohol plays a central role as he copes with the heartache and daily reminders of what he once had. He travels to a college town on the Gulf of Mexico as part of his lecture circuit to escape the sorrowful New England winter and the reminders of all that he had lost – his home, his wife, and his life. The following scene captures his edgy, fragile psyche brilliantly:
The interior of the plane on landing seemed so impacted with flesh that it would have required only one neurasthenic’s psychic break to be transformed into a thrashing tube of terror, a panic-driven, southbound rat king of tourists headed for the offshore ooze.
Throughout the story Duffy make a series of observations of the town suiting of an established painter, one who sees the overall scene and zooms into the grittiest details as a sort of self-portrait. Each observation connects to a previous one, I noticed, painting a grand picture of the town. He describes the town as “layers of stuccoed box bungalows leaning on thin concrete walls lit by tiki torches, enclosing tin pastel swimming pools.” The descriptions often carry themes of religion, redemption, and morality, reflecting his thought-process and overall sadness. Note the tiki torch and plane references in the following excerpt in a later paragraph:
The doomed palms with their spiky crowns reminded Duffy of a crucifixion. Insolent posters were affixed to their suffering trunks with cruel nails the size of industrial staples, threatening passersby with the judgment of Christ. Artificial palms stood at intervals among others like Judas goats at a slaughterhouse to encourage and betray the doomed natural ones. The tiki-torch fuel, together with road stench and beach barbecue pits, gave it all the aroma of a day-old plane crash.
Throughout the stories in Fun With Problems, the scenery is lush and complex, filled with people and things representing the good and bad of society living amongst each other, its ambiguity displaying both flaws and beauty externalizing the protagonists’ personas. After finishing the book, I had read in Stone’s biography that he is known for writing about characters with complex psychologies, an attribute that I was pleased to discover during my own course as a reader.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A writer’s maturation of character

Last week I wrote about drawing influence from published writers. Over the weekend, my latest influence revealed itself. Last week through Saturday morning I had been reading Robert Stone’s Fun With Problems, a collection of short stories dealing with heavily flawed characters existing in the darker side of humanity whether or not they even realize it. In some incredible feat, I spent at least ten hours on Saturday writing, rewriting, and revising a short horror story. I don’t get to spend that much time writing in one day usually, it was a strange feeling when I had wrapped it up for the night, like I had stepped out of time and reality. I didn’t want to come back at first, but my family came home, we needed dinner and so on.

The revelation came as I was reading the story aloud. Stone’s book influenced my approach to incorporating my protagonist’s backstories; slowly revealed details layered one on another creating a complex persona in as few words as possible. Without this awareness during the process, I found myself striving for new depths in character creation. Not to say I’ve never dug deep before; this was different.

I found specific intent in what I wrote about his past actions and their effect on the current-day storyline. Writing this horror story has become a psychological study of this heavily flawed character, seemingly laced with lessons in morality, maybe even spirituality. Good versus evil in this story became a thick pool of grayness, a viscous organic byproduct of several visceral systems malfunctioning in tandem. My flawless victim of circumstance born of mediocrity in the rough draft matured into a well rounded, wonderfully dark, and flawed character with the charm of a successful door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman and the patience of a hungry cat. I leapt over a hurdle I never knew was there.

Perhaps my protagonist, as different as he is from me, is my reflection or a second personality buried in my subconscious. We shall see.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Scary Scribes Radio Interview

Scary Scribes with host Kristi Peterson Schoonover interviews four book authors – Jeff Strand, Sephera Geron, Fawn, and DT Griffith from the anthology, Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope. Originally recorded and broadcasted live on July 29, 2012.

I sat in my car with windows shut in the heat in a family member's driveway during this interview. There was no way we would make the one hour drive  home in time for the radio show. Of course that didn't stop my daughter and little cousins from approaching the car to distract me as a question was posed to me. It all worked out well.

Thanks to Fawn for putting this video together!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Sphere of fictional influence

Following my break from all things academic this past summer, I am discovering that the various authors’ I have read recently have had subtle influences over my writing style in my latest stories.

Raymond Carver’s short and to the point sentences making the mundane interesting in Cathedral. In “The Lottery” Shirley Jackson portrays a dark and twisted community tradition in matter-of-fact light-heartedness. Even though this is a nonfiction example about fiction, Stephen King’s flowing narrative of On Writing is filled with brutally honest prose of carefully selected words laced with wit and self-deprecating humor. Cormac McCarthy’s jarring sentence structures in The Road shifted point-of-views blended with internal dialogue and swift variances in psychic distance to portray a bleak world. All incredible styles, each quite different, sharing the common thread of a little says a lot.

I developed my own unique fiction voice in the early 1990s as a college student, with the influences of Salinger and Hemingway resonating in my brain since high school. Some time after my professional career became focused on commercial creative work, I spent a long time away from fiction – I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know how long that was – only picking it up again in 2010 with the dark humor horror novel John Dies at the End by David Wong. I loved that book! I was excited again about writing creatively after years of corporate writing.

Interestingly, that abstinence from published fiction allowed (or forced) me to shape my writing style in a vacuum. Now that I have returned to short story writing on a weekly basis, I find that I draw inspiration from each author’s style and repurpose it in my own voice. My sentences vary in length and rhythm considerably more than they used to, combining fragments and run-ons as they illustrate the tone and atmosphere of a scene. My former tendency was artful and fluid all of the time, now those attributes are only reserved for times most appropriate.

In my own roundabout way, I have proven to myself the value of regularly reading other published works as a writer as each contributes another layer to my foundation. In past blog entries I’ve written about breaking the rules to develop style and finding my voice. My work has matured considerably over the past twelve months and continues to mold itself when I’m not looking. It’s a transformation I had not expected; one I fully embrace.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Writing Craft: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road contained an unusual, if not disruptive writing style that immediately struck me on the first page. Sentences varied in odd structures, some abrupt, some run-on, some fragmented. Many contractions were missing apostrophes; quotation marks were completely absent from all dialogue. Some dialogue was intertwined within paragraphs of description, action, and narrative as exemplified in the following:

He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can. (7)

The disruptive writing style, seemingly incoherent at times, stylistically blended with the post-apocalyptical world of The Road. The atmosphere throughout the story was gray and cold, filled with the lifeless charred remains of a once flourishing landscape weighted heavily with despair and innate survival. The text portrayed this with eerie appropriateness. Sentences were cold, words were charred, and prose and dialogue loomed with despair, graced by the smallest nuances of hope. Proper constructs would have been detrimental to the authenticity of the story, its chaotic reality in the reader’s mind.

Dreams and memories blurred with the protagonist’s reality, as did the narration and the protagonist’s inner dialogue. Point-of-view shifted with no warning from third to first person to tell the story as accurately as it could be told. In the following example, a series of third person run-on sentences morphs into the protagonist’s perspective:

They stumbled and fell through the woods the night long and long before dawn the boy fell and would not get up again. He wrapped him in his own parka and wrapped him in the blanket and sat holding him, rocking back and forth. A single round left in the revolver. You will not face the truth. You will not. (68)

The ambiguity of who speaks the sentence “A single round left in the revolver” – narrator or protagonist – is found throughout the book lending to the precariousness and fragmentation of the story’s environment. The two subsequent sentences “You will not face the truth. You will not,” call to question whether this is actually the protagonist speaking to his son, his inner dialogue, or the narrator speaking to the protagonist, further compounding this world of uncertainty dynamic.

The stylistic handling or mishandling of the text contributed to the fullness of the story. Disjointed oversimplified dialogue with minimal clarity of who was speaking helped to illustrate the dismal, desperate environment. While heavy repetition of thematic words solidified the setting: gray, cold, wet, ash, burned, charred, dead. Run-ons punctuated by short fragments and single word sentences accentuated the scenes’ actions and moods.

My take away from The Road is one of creative freedom, of knowing the rules well and breaking them to fit the writer’s intent. The text successfully created a vivid portrayal of the post-apocalyptic world, one that was as rich and thriving in detail as it was gruesome and deadly in story. An exemplary literary work in which every word is used as the hues and thick brush strokes of a Van Gogh landscape.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Starting anew

New semester. New MFA writing. I have been away from this blog during the summer, not for any reason in particular, except for moving to a new home and undergoing some minor medical stuff. The fall semester has begun; a good excuse if any to dedicate time to this thing.

I read over the weekend as I recovered from surgery Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I will focus on in more detail in a following blog entry. I’m still processing it twenty-four hours later. Deep, dark, heavy, bleak, cold. The commentary on the value of religious belief, human nature, compassion, survival instincts, father-son relationships, trust, and the downfall of human civilization. To dissect McCarthy’s writing style at this moment is a massive undertaking I’m not prepared to take on for this blog, at least not today, but his rule-breaking and the resulting creative freedom is something I can cherish and learn from.

Unusual sentence structures. The lack of quotation marks for dialogue and apostrophes missing from certain conjunctions, like “havent” and “didnt.” The subtle convergence of inner dialogue, dreams, and third person narrative, which occasionally slipped into first person. All to tell the story exactly as McCarthy intended. The first few pages required some adjustment to the odd style, but I fell quickly into his post-apocalyptic world, his style providing foundation and lending to atmosphere rather than creating disruption. His disruptive style became my normal as the reader.

My take away is simple. Style, whether or not rules are intentionally broken, is as much a key part of the story as the characters and plot. Another tool in the writer’s toolbox, to borrow from Stephen King, that creates the indisputable uniqueness of a writer.

The Road has set the stage for an intriguing semester of new writing, new methods, new experiments with style. The perfect kickoff.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Radio interview tonight to support Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope antholaogy

Hey everyone, in the name of shameless self-promotion I will be one of a handful of writers tonight interviewed on Scary Scribes. The live show runs 6:00 – 7:00 PM eastern, after which, a podcast will be available. If you have the time please check it out:

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope is out!

Front cover art by Jason Mones, design by D.T. Griffith
I am excited to to share the news that my short story, "Johnny Versus the Creatures," is now published as part of the new anthology Unnatural Tales of the Jackalope, edited by John Palisano. This marks my entrance into the fiction publishing world. 

Please check it out on Amazon and considering buying a copy at: The ebook is available now, paperback due for release very soon.

Keep up with news from Western Legends Publishing on Facebook. More books due out this year!

Back cover: list of contributing authors.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Summer of change

It's that moment when the cats's special diet food smells appetizing you realize it's time to get out. Locked inside, cleaning, working, only feeling the burn of the summer sun when it's time to make a dump run or donate more hoarded materials taking up valuable space in the house. By the time night arrives, all of that creative inspiration to write the next great American novel takes on the hazy view of an intoxicated glaucoma patient. Motivation withers away as exhaustion - both mental and physical - presides.

Surrounded by nature - wooded open spaces, rivers, an Audubon - yet never able to really appreciate any of it. Life has not dealt me those cards, the universe seems to have other realities in store for me. Realities in the form of work, obligations to meet for my employer to yield a profit and in-turn pay me a salary. A salary that is obligated to pay for home and food and a few little luxuries; most importantly though, to support my daughter's skating career. Obligations never cease to grow from the fertile soil of an active family lifestyle.

It is so rare that I find myself without something to do. Today is one of those days as I sit here in a Panera in the rolling hills on Connecticut eating lunch and writing feverishly on my iPad, waiting to return home after the realtor shows my private home off to prospective buyers. A circumstance we had not anticipated only a few months ago as our landlord placed the house on the market. One that necessitates relocating to my more urban hometown on the coast near friends, family, and the sprawling culture of the Greater NYC region. At least I'll once again feel at home. My nature will be the patches of woods between commercial properties, the rivers dissecting towns and cities as they spill into Long Island Sound, and the waterfronts.

As it's been said many times in varying capacities, life brings us full-circle. Less the snake eating its own tail and more an expedition through many life changing events and locations, only to return home as a stronger, wiser, more matured self. Until this move materialized, I never thought I would return to my hometown, much less feel excited about it.

Change is the predominant theme in my life this summer in every way. And I have no choice but to embrace it if I want to survive and continue to grow, and lose my appetite for the aroma of special cat food. More to come in a much less self-indulgent manner.