Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List. Previously I finished up a run of contemporary female authors with a local, academic read. Now as I complete the first round of re-writes on my science fiction manuscript I decided to pivot to that genre in the Reading List, starting with Robert Heinlein’s masterwork, the 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Or rather I decided to read what was released in 1991 as the “original, uncut version.” (Although Heinlein may have actually preferred the initial version.)
This novel is considered a masterpiece of the form, and while I don’t totally disagree I must say I had my ups and downs with both the narrative and what Heinlein was trying to say with the story. As readers know by now, these entries are not so much rundowns of the plots of these books, and I wouldn’t want to do that with this book anyway. If you are truly interested in the genre this one is without a doubt worth reading, but I don’t think I would place it as high as Vonnegut or Gibson. The novel was indeed vastly ahead of its time, and was visionary in how to use fiction to deconstruct such societal woes as religion and worries about “the other” (in this case an “other” from the planet Mars, yet human like us). It was also quite revolutionary in its approach to sexual relationships, which scandalized people at the time and led to the novel being banned from schools. Not much of it seems that way in 2019; despite the novel supposedly taking place around our time period there were more than a few lines (including a victim-blaming one concerning rape uttered by a female character and some pretty outdated views on homosexuality) that I would have preferred cut.
I thought the novel’s strongest parts were in fact the religious bits, and Heinlein’s deft use of prose to examine what was just becoming a major element of society in his day to be very interesting. He was essentially describing today’s megachurches, and I was blown away to read passages of gambling halls and strip joints being turned into religious domains, pondering how he was simply drawing conclusions of what was to come. The entire novel is also a great example of how to build up enough of a world that it is a believable place for the characters to interact through the story. On the whole, I did enjoy this over-five-hundred page novel, and it was a good if not overly satisfactory (re-)introduction to the genre, and I do hope to revisit Heinlein again in the future.
Toward the end of this year I plan on getting to Omar El Akkad, Dave Eggers and Ursula Le Guin, as well as possibly some Burroughs and Asmiov. But up next, in the middle of all of this I am going to take a break from my manuscript and work on some (science fiction-y) short stories that I hope to submit in the wake of “Live a Mile” finding publication. To that end I’m going to dive into a relatively new entry in Houghton Mifflin’s long-running Best American Series: the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 (ok so I’m a little behind the times, sue me). And I will be back with an update on that published story when it hits the streets in October. Thanks as always for reading and writing!
Hello readers and welcome to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here if you missed it. And without further ado, here is the second installment in the Writing Life.
Embrace the failure. I know, it sounds counterintuitive and perhaps like every other piece of writing advice you’ve encountered on the internet and elsewhere. But there is perhaps no other more important part of the writing life than this one. Because it will be all consuming, and inescapable. Forget the general people out there who may be repelled by your work, or never even find out about it; there are yet to be legions of lit mags, online outlets, editors and publishers who all will reject your work for various reasons. This is a huge part of refining our skills. I suppose I should lead all this failure announcing that I am finally going to have a short story published this October, after a half-decade of writing them and not getting anywhere (more on where to find this particular story coming soon). This represents the culmination of getting an idea, drafting a basic concept story, showing it to a few people, getting some great feedback, rewriting and rewriting it, looking it over a few more dozen times, submitting it and receiving (at least) ten rejections, from lit mags in Minnesota and beyond, until finally it will be published by an outlet that has also published my editor, Libby Copa.
Speaking of Libby, a while back she pointed me to this essential LitHub article by Kim Liao about the importance of seeking 100 rejections per year. I know that I didn’t even get close to that with this story, and that feels pretty great but doesn’t make me underestimate the amount of work required to get even more published. If the dream is having some kind of story collection ready to go by the time my other manuscripts can get shopped, I will need to get hundreds of rejections piled over a dozen stories (at least). I have come to find the necessary rotation should be around five-six stories sent out to as many places as you can, while keeping track of them through a spreadsheet or document. And while it felt odd to have to withdraw the piece from other places I’d submitted it, I didn’t mind the reason.
This essay was also inspired by some thoughtful reviews of my books on GoodReads, which is another great resource for feedback (even if they point out errors I too have gone on about at length). And as much fun as it was to see someone created a profile just to give my first novel a one-star review, it is all a part of dealing with the fact that some people just won’t like your work. It seems hard to overcome that at first, but the more you embrace it, the more you will see how it doesn’t define you but is used to make your writing better. I have a lot more confidence now that an independent party has verified that I might know what I’m doing. This will in turn help me get my current manuscript in the best shape it can be, and eventually get it published as well. So learn to embrace the failure, for your own good.
Hello readers and welcome to this short installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Finishing up the first half the year reading nothing but contemporary female authors (last time was one of the best), I am wrapping up this portion with a local author, Julie Schumacher and her hilarious 2014 novel Dear Committee Members, a novel-in-letters unlike that I’ve encountered since maybe Dracula.
Schumacher is a professor at the U of M in the Department of English, and it comes through in every inch of this tale, which is told entirely through Jay Fitger’s letters of recommendation, whether that be of current and former students, or for literary honors. This conceit becomes increasingly bizarre as Fitger’s life intervenes upon his students’, including one who is re-imagining Melville and ends up with one of the more darker ends of the piece. The rest of the time I was laughing out loud repeatedly, reading out loud lines of prose that were just so ridiculous (and let’s face it, would never be included in a “real” LOR but perhaps that is the point) yet cathartic and abrasive. Schumacher notes in her bio she has “written more letters of recommendation than she cares to recall,” and the entire novel (short and succinct as it is) revolves around this theme.
And even for a book published five years ago, that theme was quite obvious. Though the letters take place over the school year of 2009-2010, for both her and her character the writing is on the wall. Liberal arts doesn’t have the luster it once had in the era of unaffordable college; the economics department gets its floor upgraded as we hear about ad nauseum (Fitger is a stunning creation, a witless once-talented creature inhabited by many people the author must have encountered over the years); Fitger’s recriminatory letters continue to gain in self righteousness and self loathing; I have never seen character work done like this and it’s quite impressive. As I keep digressing, the major theme is the deconstruction of the academic scene via economics, and one man’s vigilant (some of the other characters might say vicious) crusade against it. In an era in which presidential candidates are actually calling for free college and abolishing student debt, perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. And in the end Figer’s colleagues (rightly or wrongly) vote for him to chair their department back to its former glory.
Overall I would highly recommend this novel for anyone looking for a short, funny read that also grapples with some important issues about art, books, and where all this stuff is heading (Young Adult literature that sells for six-figures is a prominent presence, for example). Schumacher clearly has a good grasp of what she wants to say with the unctuous Fitger, and it comes across as he degenerates through the year and tries to redeem himself through tragedy.
Up next, as promised I’m taking a pivot into science fiction as I plunge head first into the manuscript re-writes (which are going pretty well, by the way): the legendary Robert Heinlein and his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. And there will be more updates in the Writing Life and on my book. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! I am continuing the trend of contemporary female authors, this time focusing on another recommendation: Katherine Dunn and her 1989 novel Geek Love. This work has taken on legendary status among a certain type of cult-ish book lover, and I had known about it for years but never sat down to read it until now. And I have to say this is one of the best books I have encountered in this portion of the experiment, right up there with The Secret History and Wise Blood from last year.
Since I’m taking more of a “review” tack this year I will eschew most of the plot points in the hope that readers who haven’t discovered this gem will want to spiral through the tale. But a quick summary: this book takes place over two separate time periods but covers the same family, the Binewskis and their traveling “Carnival Fabulon.” In trying to save their business, the family resorts to some unconventional and dangerous means for birthing “freak” children which then become the main acts of the show, eventually bringing about its downfall. Now I want to get down into just what this novel gets so right.
This is one of the best-constructed novels I’ve ever encountered. There is not a sentence out of place and this feels like a story that took a decade to write (which it did; various pieces of it were published in literary magazines throughout the Eighties). Even the few things that jumped out at me, such as an adverb here or there or a sentence ending with a preposition didn’t bother me as the writing is so phenomenal. This helps with the major themes, which off the top of my head could be: the body and its perceptions, the concept of “freaks” and “norms,” cults, carnivals, technology, telekinesis, the list is endless. And they are all covered in depth and with some of the best drawn characters I’ve ever read. Each individual of the family brings their own drama to the story, and each has a role to play in its undoing. And while there is a fair amount of content that may turn people off (incest is a theme that hovers if not technically present), I found that the more outrageous the plot became the more I enjoyed it.
I want to just briefly stop at the “freak” theme that I felt had reverberations in the sense that LGBTQ people are finally gaining acceptance from “norm” society. I also can’t help but see the continued media obsession with beauty paralleled with the later parts of the story, in which the narrator Oly works out a plan to save her own daughter from someone she fears will change her. This book was miles ahead of its time in commenting on this and I think it deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone wanting to know how to capture the most important elements of the novel. Next I’m going to take on another recent book written by a woman (Julie Shumacher’s 2014 novel Dear Committee Members) before I pivot into science fiction territory with my manuscript rewrite. Thanks as always for reading!
Hello there readers and welcome as I finally get to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years. After working on the initial blog post (still entitled “What’s a writer for?”) for months and seeing no end in sight (but there are gonna be tons of links!) I have decided to try something different for this series. And that is, shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. I mean, that was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. So without further ado, here is the first installment in the Writing Life.
I’m writing a book about climate change. It’s not like I haven’t said this before, but I think it deserves its own post because it’s pretty much all I have worked on for a solid year. And the entire thing needs to be re-written, because the perspective is wrong. By next year I might have a solid draft to show people. But until then, I can talk about it. So, why climate change?
If you somehow haven’t heard about it by now, the IPCC reports essentially spell out what is rapidly becoming the challenge of my generation: climate crisis and how little time we have to do anything about it. While this issue has waffled over my lifetime as something Americans care about, and then don’t (remember #climategate? No, I’m not going to link to that), it seems that we have reached a relative tipping point with legislation like the Green New Deal reaching massive audiences and people my age realizing this is going to affect the rest of their lives.
It’s important, and if you have been following me online for any length of time you’ll know how much I scream into the void about it to little result. This is my attempt to rectify that in what I feel is my greatest capacity: writing. Specifically, a story about climate change, how it may be manipulated into use via geo-engineering and how that may lead to an utter division of the planet. And that just scratches the surface of this beast, which also tackles AI, religion, technology, cloning, environmental catastrophe, time travel (can you see why it is kind of a mess at this point?), and other stuff. Oh yeah, journalism too. Cuz that’s what I’ve devoted a lot of my time over the years, and informs a lot of this book.
And as my editor stated, this book pushes a lot of buttons. I come from a conservative religious background that ultimately didn’t take, and I want to examine it through my fiction. But I also want to examine a culture that allows the generational selling out we’ve witnessed via the climate crisis, and how it’s up to us to do something about it. Again, in the real world we have maybe a decade to reduce emissions to the point where human survival is a possibility. In my novel, that is not quite a foregone conclusion, and for the hell of it I will give away a major plot point in the hope it may interest you. I conclude that the only thing that may wake up the populace is the sudden loss of half the landmass of Florida. Again, sitting here reading this you may not believe it. But the science tells us enough ice is melting rapidly that something like that could happen, and in my lifetime.
Speaking of my editor, she was also right to point out that this is merely one way to get involved. Contact your representatives, create your own art about it, get involved in the protest movement that is growing by the day, and try to use as little fossil fuel as possible. I know it sounds hyperbolic but this is truly the challenge of our generation, and we need all hands on deck.
Thanks for indulging me as I shine a light on my manuscript, and I hope you’ll one day be able to read it as I publish it. Some other topics I have lined up for this series include: failure and why we should seek it out, how to learn to listen to others (i.e. editors), time management, and some other things. And of course I’m still working on that (initial) blog post about what writers are for, which takes on new meaning by the hour of teh #Drumpf tweet. On that note, thanks for reading and writing.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Last time I took on a contemporary female author I meant to get to in the previous year; this time it was a similar circumstance as Edan Lepucki’s dystopian vision of the west coast has been on my radar ever since it got published in 2014. Readers may recall Lepucki was on the receiving end of the “Colbert bump” and received a lot of publicity for her debut, but after waiting so long to read this I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the many missed opportunities.
As should be known, part of taking a deep dive into these books is to see how they might stack up to my own work. And in the case of California, it is stunning to see the similarities. A world ravaged by climate change, people easily swayed by demagogues, the notion of how humanity might carry its next generations forward; all of these are themes present in my current science fiction manuscript. And yet each time Lepucki uncovers the most interesting parts of her world, she kept returning to the slower aspects of the story that didn’t move it along as well.
The story situates around a young couple (Frida & Cal) attempting to survive by themselves in the California wilderness. Unfortunately, except for a few brief mentions (hurricanes, a huge snowstorm in the Mideast, nothing about the rest of the planet) there is almost no reference to why the land is so barren, so devoid of humans or animals. When the family who was keeping watch over Frida and Cal mysteriously kill themselves, the couple decide to move on to the “Land,” one of many needlessly capitalized words that dot the book (the “Group,” a smartphone-esque “Device,” etc) that should have been better developed. It was almost as if Lepucki understood the bare outlines of how our society and political life was crumbling in the wake of climate catastrophe, but didn’t want to do more than provide a bare outline for the actual plot, which frankly breaks down toward the end. The primary antagonist, who turns up alive after purportedly performing a suicide bomb attack for the Group in Los Angeles, doesn’t seem to have a leadership-related bone in his body and yet the people on the Land look to him as their saviour when he rescues them from the “Pirates,” a roving band of marauders that again are barely developed and have almost no backstory.
If it sounds like I’m trashing this novel, I don’t mean to go that far. But after having a recent manuscript ravaged (rightly so) by my editor, I feel I am much more attuned to the important areas of world building, background and character development, and envisioning how the future might play out. All of these things are quite lacking in this book, and while the writing flows very well (Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Lepucki’s wheelhouse) there was so much about this world I wanted to know more about, and kept hoping would be revealed. The “Communities” are maybe the most dystopian aspect, are talked about for a huge portion of the book, and yet we just see them briefly in the last ten or so pages.
Overall I can’t say I would recommend this novel, but am going to keep reading contemporary female authors as they should be promoted and read. Next up will be another female author: Katherine Dunn’s well-regarded 1989 book Geek Love. And I still hope to get some of the other series (How to Write a Book, What Writers are For) in gear later this year. Thanks as always for reading.
Hello readers and welcome to the second installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Last time I took on another of my editor Libby’s recommendations: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. This was another book written by a contemporary female author that I must admit, has completely changed my opinion about today’s publishing landscape. If something this good can still be cranked out by a major house, there is hope for us all.
As you know, this time around I’m taking a more deep dive into each work, which apparently is making me less effective at turnaround as I’m barely clearing a book per week. I am fine with that, however, when the reading is this good. For years I thought Hemingway was the epitome of a stunning, clipped, American sentence. Not so much anymore. Cline’s prose is so well put together I felt lost in her world of alternate 1969 for days on end. Alternate in the sense that this is a reimagining of the Manson family, a peculiar curiosity from that time, one of many my wife has gotten me into over the years. The main character is the only member of the cult not to go to jail, to live her life on the periphery of things, to see it from the author’s perspective, and it is a powerful ride. I had a few quibbles with parts of the prose but let me state flat out that the story itself more than compensates for any issues I had. The framing used, seeing the main character as an old woman, is incredible. You can tell from early on something very bad is going to happen in these people's’ lives, and that tension is threaded intricately throughout.
That being said, I did have a couple of items, both of which could have been caught by her editor. First, there is a luminous couple pages of paragraphs where Evie first encounters “the girls” (meaning those outside her world of high school privilege) which are set right at the beginning of the text. We revisit the scene pretty early in the book, which left me wondering why the decision was made to excise that little bit of text and put it in the front. That’s fairly petty, but my next critique is a bit more substantial. While Cline is presenting a master class in how to use language and metaphor, she does overuse the simile form a bit too much. The word “like” especially becomes overused at times, but I must stress the writing is overall so good I didn’t notice very much.
This was an amazing, dark book and shows reams of potential for this author. Her website lists a bunch of other stuff she’s published, and looks similar to mine (I shudder when looking at my “events” which took place four years ago…). I eagerly anticipate what else she publishes and would highly recommend this book for anyone who has (like me) been discouraged with the state of contemporary fiction. Up next, I’m on to another female author, Edan Lepucki and her 2014 debut California. Thanks as always for reading!
(I should add I am now able to devote my full break at my day job to reading non-fiction, so hope to compile some of those titles here for those who may have interest. First down the hatch was one I have wanted to read for at least a decade: Alan Weisman’s landmark 2007 thought experiment The World Without Us. A major help for my current sci fi/dystopian manuscript.)
Hello readers and welcome to the first installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Alright, so it’s technically the third month into the year but who’s counting? I’ve spent the last few months wrapping up the 2018 Reading List, reflecting on it, and posting a re-worked short story to the blog. Then I did a close read of the first book on this year’s list: Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder.
This book was (actually!) recommended to me by my editor, and I can see why. Patchett’s luminous sentences, coupled with radiant scene description and phenomenal character interactions (Annick Swenson was one of the best fictional people I have encountered in some time) made this a very fascinating read. The story follows Dr. Marina Singh as she travels to the Amazon region of Brazil for a large pharmaceutical company in search of her lost (and presumed dead) lab partner and friend, as well as the aforementioned Dr. Swenson, who is working on a fertility cure derived from a compound in the jungle. While it takes about a hundred pages to get to that point, once the narrative settles it is quite compelling, and Patchett throws in a few plot twists at the end I have to admit I did not see coming. The story does just seem to “end” and while I’m not sure the resolution is quite earned, it is interesting to see the end result of Dr. Singh’s journey. Now I’m going to delve into what I didn’t like about the novel before giving my ultimate recommendation.
While the story was good enough on its own merits, the gorgeous sentences were overwhelmed at times by a complete and utter over-use of adverbs. For a piece of advice that I thought was well known (still the number one thing I remember from Stephen King’s On Writing), Patchett seems to have never heard of it, making worse some lines (and speaking parts) with needless “ly” modifiers. There were also some confusing structural issues, involving Dr. Singh recalling bits of her past when I wasn’t quite sure we had shifted back. But this may have been a function of me not picking up the clues as well as I should have. The largest issues I had with the novel were the times the plot did tip-toe up to the “white savior” line. As Conrad before her, Patchett seems not to have much of a place for the native Indians of her story, except to show them using the fertility cure, braiding hair, or giving birth. Even Dr. Swenson, who has been studying the Lakashi people for most of her life is treated like a deity rather than a researcher. This all being said, Patchett also does a good job weaving in thematic notions of “Big Pharma exploiting the rainforest,” which in real life has turned into a bit of a plunderous game and is worth writing and speaking about in public.
So would I recommend this title? Overall I’d have to say yes, because it was a great read. (And while I’m not supposed to be veering in this direction anymore, there are some good lessons for writers within this novel as well.) If you can get past some of the issues in the prose you will be rewarded with a great story and characters. I hope to read another of Patchett’s books in the future.
Up next I’m continuing in the contemporary female author way by getting to a title I didn’t make time for last year: Emma Cline’s 2016 debut The Girls. Stay tuned to this here blogspace for more of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List!
I never noticed that small crack in the upper left corner of the bathroom, winding its way toward the pinnacle of the ceiling. A bit of mold grows around the base, a sick greenish-black splotch. I open the old mirror and its hinges squeal in protest. From within, the remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small rectangular box. It taunts me; reminds me of what used to be.
Sylvia used to make me floss every night. Said it was good for me. I haven't touched the stuff since she left and took the kids. I don't notice a difference in my teeth. I feel around with an index finger to make sure. As I am doing this, my eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought the week after she moved out. It's not as good as what she got me, but I don't care. I don't have to care anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the overhead bulb. A pack of cotton swabs she would use to clean the disgusting wax from the caverns of my ear cavities. My mother used to do the same thing when I was six years old. I see peroxide for my little cuts, bandages for the larger ones. My gaze shifts to the tweezers sitting next to the bandages. She used to use those to pull little hairs right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it.
Sylvia left behind what she didn't want at her new place, the overstuffed plaid couch we found at a garage sale the year we were married. Our cat Diana, before we even started talking about having children, used to eat the white fluff that poured from its sides when she scratched it with her long, merciless claws. Diana lives with Sylvia and my children now. I think they even got another cat.
I see Sylvia took all the "female" stuff from this squeaky cabinet. The makeup, the hair ties, the pins, facial cleanser, hair spray. All the pills she had to take for allergies, headaches, muscle injuries. And the bottles that would make her smell nice when we were alone without the kids. I don't need to smell like a damn thing now. I'm still a man, aren't I? Our gender was never supposed to smell like roses. Just like we were never meant to clean up after ourselves. Don't even think on that kitchen right now. Focus on the task at hand.
My eyes arrive back upon the tiny white box of string. If I am going to do this, affirm that I'm ready to move on, it's best to get it over with while I can. I don't see or feel anything wrong with my teeth. But I'm not looking hard enough. I reach out and pull the little box down to the sink. A string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and pull out a length of it. Start on the back, I tell myself. That was always the hardest. Six months ago my dentist said a cavity was forming here. Sylvia said to just take care of it; we'd worry about how to pay for it later. I should have listened to her. On the bright side, there is nobody to nag me about what to eat now. I wonder what's left in that refrigerator. Ouch. Focus.
Damn, this hurts. More than it did last time. I shouldn't have broken this habit. I shouldn't have done a lot of things. We thought new trips would help our situation. Did our ski vacation in Denver last winter? Not according to my bruised ass, and damaged ego. I didn't know the pain of snow grinding against flesh quite until then. Charlie, our oldest, almost slid right into a tree. And the traveling out east to see some of Sylvia's judgmental relatives? When we left screaming out the door on the way out to our rented minivan, Uncle Mike said in mighty plain language we were not welcome back. Sorry I brought up how good I thought oil was for the country at large. Didn't realize it was still so communist out there. What's been happening to this country.
My thoughts return to the slow movement of my fingers, moving along the right side. This side hurts even worse. Could there be another cavity forming here? Why wouldn't the dentist have told me this?
Sylvia, you shouldn't have taken the kids. I lost control of the narrative. Christ knows what she's telling them about their absent father. About what a jerk, what a loser he is. He doesn't even floss, Charlie. Did ya know that? Doesn't even take care of himself. What kind of man is not able to continue basic hygiene once his partner is gone? Not somebody she wants you to know, Lisa. I suppose it's more important she knows what men are like, now, before she grows up. Before she goes into this world, and finds out what it's really like.
Forget about all of that. Keep going. I am doing this because I want to, not because it was a routine, like all the others only you could keep me doing. Not because it reminds me of the ways you affected my life. I'm conducting this painful exercise, this tour of duty because I want to, and not for any other reason.
This part, in the front, doesn't hurt so much. This is what it's supposed to feel like. Gives the mouth a nice clean feeling. Doesn't that feel better, Sylvia would say. Yes it does, I would say in grudging reply. You were right. I got used to saying that quite a lot. She nailed the fact that I wouldn't be able to keep that job in her father's firm. Of course, there was more to it than that. Besides, I got this new job at the diner. Pays the bills for this place, for now. I'll find work elsewhere. It's not like I'll be working at a suck hole restaurant down the street for the rest of my life.
Now it's time to floss the other side. This hurts like hell in the back. I must be developing more cavities. It's in my diet. Sylvia used to force me to eat the most disturbing foods. Healthy crap like broccoli, potatoes, carrots, and fish. Can you imagine much worse? And this was every night. She said it was good for the kids to grow up with healthy bodies. What about what might be good for me?
Sylvia and I used to have routines. Go out to the potholed street to pick up our mail together each night after work, dodging the kids on bicycles and then old folks out for their stroll. Sometimes we'd walk further too, out into the park across the way. We'd sit up late at night reading, her with a book and me with a hunting magazine, as the fire warmed. I don't even remember the last time we went out to see a movie. Not since the kids came along. They went to see their own stuff now, and we didn't because we were too exhausted. Routines are only held together by commitment. I'm finding that out now. I keep telling myself I'm doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I'm doing this because she used to make me do it. I can't not do it. I want to be told to do it. To be held to a standard.
I pull out another strand of floss, circulate it to the lower regions. It still hurts, but not as bad as at the beginning. I should just go to the dentist. You would want me to do that, even after all of this. You forced these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance. You knew I wanted better. But maybe I don't want to be better anymore. You're not around to make me. Not since that night.
You had your suspicions. Lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker in your father's office. I know you had your father spying on me. In the break room, in my office, in the hallways. He even had his secretary looking through my mail. Why was I so stupid? I left that envelope out on my desk, knowing she would see it. Knowing you would find out. Maybe I wanted to be found out. Maybe I knew it was wrong all along. Plus it never could have worked out. The girl was half my age, didn't even know who Ronald Reagan was. I was a damned fool.
Truth was, I didn't think I was happy. I couldn't imagine getting that from you and the kids. I wanted out. And now that I am, it's everything I thought it would be. But much worse.
Back to the flossing, I have rounded third and am getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier is flung at the mirror. I watch as it smacks the glass, falls a few centimeters and gets plastered in place right above my left eye in the mirror. It takes up room among the other stains: toothpaste, soap, my own sweat, water marks. These things she would have washed off so I wouldn't have to look at them. It is time to be done.
I hold a lingering glance at the cabinet after I swing open the creaky door. The floss was left in there. You knew I'd want to use it again someday. My eyes fall on the rest of my products; drop to the sink as I close the door. I have to get that door fixed. Along with the crack in the ceiling. And the mold. You would have noticed that months ago.
My gums are on bloody fire, the pain is excruciating when I open my jaw. I recall you one evening yelling at me, telling me I had to endure the pain before I could understand it. The worst pain of all I brought upon you, and the children. I can never be forgiven for this. I'm not sure if I even want to be.
Back to the main room, where the ratty, comfortable couch remains. Nobody around to tell me I can't set my food plates right on the cushions, either. Like a disgusting hog in a pen.
I have everything I could ever need. Sylvia took all of her clothes, leaving metric feet of space in the bedroom closet. This is my chance to see how long I can make it with my current wardrobe. I told her once I could live in these clothes for years. Now is the time to prove it. I think it's time to get some beers from the liquor store across the street.
I will miss you. I will always miss you. I cannot dwell on the past, not when I have this sweet bachelor pad. Not when I have the opportunity to meet new people. It's easy to make friends after you turn forty, right? You moved on with your friends quite well. None of them want to speak to me, and it serves them right. I never liked them, anyways. Once the girl in your dad's office found out I was married, it was over. I guess women don't like to be deceived. Now I am on my own, for the first time since before I met you. I did it before, I can do it again. Right?
Shit, it is chilly out here. I wish I remembered to bring my coat. No bother. A few vagrants linger around the shelves in the liquor store, harsh white fluorescent light blasting the scene for the closed circuit cameras. I grab a twelve pack of brew from the cooler and hoof it to the counter, where two meth heads are dueling it out for supremacy over a large forty ounce bottle. See, there are a lot of people in this neighborhood to meet. Back in the apartment building, I run up the three flights since the elevator remains out of order. I need the exercise, just like I needed to floss.
Now I just want to settle in for some television. I click the button, but nothing happens. Damn, I forgot she paid for it. I should have asked her to transfer it to my name. I need my Spike-TV. Oh well. I suppose now I can relax on my own. Do some quality reading. Like we used to in front of the fire. Where's that Norman Mailer novel.
Now it's 2:00 am and darkened in this house we used to share. I forgot the damn light bulbs. I hear myself moan in the darkness as I lift myself out of the ratty couch. Leave those beer bottles for tomorrow. You have all the time in the world before you have to walk back into that kitchen. The stack of dishes can remain a mystery until tomorrow.
Sylvia, you were right to take the kids. Charlie and Lisa will grow up the right way under your guidance. I'm an unfit parent. Can't even take care of my fucking teeth. No child should have to endure that. I had do with my father, as I told you on our second date. You saw it coming a mile away.
I stumble into bed, using my phone as a flashlight. I forgot to brush my teeth. After all that work. This thought is borne away on a stream of false consciousness. When I think I am back in reality I see Sylvia, Charlie and Lisa in front of me, standing in front of this apartment, waving but moving out of my vision. And then they are gone, and I'm alone in this bed, in this apartment with my rotten teeth and my eternal misery.
Short stories - what are they? How do they work? This is a topic I have been struggling with since I began writing for this website (almost) four years ago. The first short story I ever posted here was a re-posting of a terrible story I wrote for a creative writing class back in my university days (if you’re a glutton for punishment, here are parts one and two of that initial workshop).
Since that time I have carved out a dedicated space each year to simply read short story collections. Beginning with Jack London and Neil Gaiman, I later moved the “pivot” into these collections toward the end of each reading year before finally realizing this type of writing cannot be constrained to when I would like to think about it. I began reading pairs of authors but also spent some deeper time with those I thought were the best. I also posted a few more stories to the blog in that time. One was political in nature and got a few good responses, but without a doubt the story that made the biggest splash was “Flossing,” which I posted in September 2017. (Here is a link for those who’d like to read the original.)
Since then I have continued working on it, combining aspects of another story and cleaning up the perspective and emotional tenor. To that end, I sent the revamped story to my “other” editor Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial to get her take on how this story could be improved. I also asked her if I could use some of our editing conversations for this post in order to try and show the process of how to write a short story, something that has bedeviled me for quite a while. Those who do choose to go back and read the original will see a clipped, single-perspective story concerning a man who has lost everything in his life. While I decided to keep that overall theme, I wanted to say more about the concept of toxic masculinity through what happens when we of the male gender act as is our wont. Thankfully this came through enough for Anne to see as well.
Of course, every editing partnership contains some give and take. My “main” editor Libby could attest to that, as most of our early working relationship involved her telling me how to make my books better and me not being willing to listen to some (or all) of it. I have since learned how to trust her expertise, and I am trying to do the same here even on our points of divergence. In the case of this story, there were two places in which I told Anne I didn’t take her advice, and here was her very thoughtful consideration when we discussed the second case:
“Everything I change or comment on are suggestions, for you to take or leave as you wish. After all, this is your story, and you know best what message you're trying to get across and how you want to get there. I see my role as being an outside eye and making those suggestions, but I certainly don't expect that every author will accept 100% of them.”
The first case was more subjective, involving the main character getting a job at his (now ex-) wife’s father’s firm and how that led him into temptation. Anne suggested I cut most of this, and I decided to go a different way and pull more of a narrative from that. When I told her so, she actually said she liked the changes. This is an example of how sometimes you should stick to your original thought, but be respectful in exploring how you came to that understanding. I’m very grateful that Anne is such an amazing editor (you should follow her on Twitter too) and is very open to such a back and forth.
There was also another point of contention regarding a change of setting, and while I’m still not sure I made the right decision in whether to keep it, sometimes writers are just bull-headed and want to keep stuff in their work. This is an impulse you should listen to every once in a while, but always keep it carefully weighed against what your (very smart, talented) editor has to say on the matter.
Besides those points of divergence, every other suggestion Anne had made this story much better. It is my hope that in posting it to the blog readers can see how much it has changed in nearly two years. I am also open to any thoughts/criticism regarding the theme, which I am still not sure I have hit correctly even with this rewrite, but I am trying...
In the interest of keeping this part to its own topic of introduction, I will be putting the actual story in its own post. And I look forward to any and all reader comments, since this thing will never see the light of day for publication in an actual literary journal but is a piece that will live on my blog for demonstration purposes. I do have a few other stories I have been circulating through journals and contests over the past month; more on that if I am lucky enough to hear back from any of those outlets (all rejections so far, but they’ve come with notes from editors which are usually great).
Thanks as always, for reading my work.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.