I have tried to craft this #WritingLife essay twice. Once with the title ending “Covid” the other “George Floyd’s murder.” And then both events have merged together and represent so much more broken within our society. It’s almost quaint to think that a month ago the biggest concern with a lot of writers was “productivity.” The question of: am I creating enough during this down time? Should I be taking advantage of it more? As someone who has been laid off for a while now, I can say from a decent vantage point that none of that matters.
For some inspiration on this topic I conversed with Ed Simon, who has been running a phenomenal series on pandemic writing for The Millions.Here is part of what he had to say on the rise of “pandemic productivity:”
“Maybe they offer an alright corrective to people who feel anxiety about those things, but they sometimes do an over-correction, and are a disservice to people for whom that advice doesn't apply.“
“If I don't write, I get antsy, and I have to actively not write sometimes to recharge. I'm a recovering alcoholic, and not coincidentally my productivity shot up when I replaced getting black out drunk with actually writing. No clue if that's healthy, but it was certainly healthier, and in a very literal way I simply need to write. So the ‘You don't have to be productive’ stuff is probably good for people who DON'T have to be productive, but I kind of do.”
I thought this was a very interesting perspective and shows how a reliance on just putting words to page often backfires. You need to know what you are writing down in order to create something. I know there have been a lot of pieces on “productivity” and writing in the time of these earth-shattering events. But I’m here to tell you even if you read all of them you are not guaranteed to find the road to success cranking out your novel during this time. You may find more success doing nothing at all.
I am planning on delving into this more on the blog over the next year, but getting laid off (again) felt like an odd mirror to how this whole writing career of mine changed five years ago. And instead of thinking I must go back to wage-slave work and do another pointless job for five more years (this time with the added benefit of a pandemic), I have decided to use the little financial resources I have and (for real this time) do this as my career. I know it’s a stretch, a gamble, but it’s also the most freeing thing I could have done.
So be as productive as you want to during your quarantine. I could go on about how I’ve been re-writing my science fiction manuscript over and over in the hopes of this societal upheaval being my big break and whatever. I am more stunned to see my life from the perspective of never having to answer to anyone for my work. Ever again.
(I should add as opposed to last time when I kind of stepped aside from the journalistic side of things, in the wake of the MPD murder of George Floyd I don’t think that’s going to be an option. Those who know me might remember I used to cover City Council races and do investigations and stuff. For now it’s been more shouting on Twitter, but I may write some longer stuff at some point. The important thing is to make people aware.)
Writing in the time of...whatever it may be, don’t feel you must be productive. It’s far more important to understand what you want out of life, and then figure out how to get it. Write during all times, for all reasons. Thanks for reading.
Hello and welcome to the fourth part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(Note: Part three focused on the editing process for my third novel Observe & Detach. In the almost two years since I have returned to this series I have decided to focus again on what has become my new “current” manuscript, a science fiction novel titled Spheres of Influence. For more background on how that project came about, check out parts one and two of the series.)
Rewriting. The main reason it has taken me so long to figure out a process for this step is that I have been struggling with doing it for most of that time. Since Observe has taken a back seat in favor of this climate change tale, its manuscript has seen around six full drafts. That is, the previous draft takes up one half of my screen and the new one takes up the other part. I have decided to continue this process until my editor Libby Copa has time to take another look at the work. I have come across no easier way than this, and I must say getting all this time inside has helped me to test it out a bit more. To that end, I want to again exhibit how a piece of writing can change during each stage.
Spheres of Influence started out as another weird chain of ideas that wound up becoming an initial draft (check out part two of this series if you dare to dredge through it), which ended up being an introductory multiple pages. Reading over my thoughts back then, it’s interesting to see what has changed, or morphed, or been erased. The character here is still an “underground journalist” (maybe not so much “historian” any longer) but I have since decided to base her more on a real world journalist I admire. But her ranty first-person narration made it all the way through multiple drafts before I could see what was in front of my face: that her career and work was facilitating the story, not her general recollections. But after realizing this final cut was necessary I still had some work for the introduction, and even after this will need to make sure it hooks the reader from the start. I present now the changes first chapter paragraphs can make from one draft to the next.
Amy Greatman washed soapy water through her dark brown hair, which she noticed in the mirror above her sink was beginning to shade to gray. The reflection emanated all she tried to cultivate during her career: stone dedication honed over two decades of investigative journalism. Her eyes traced the eyes of the scar curving around her left eye, and she let her palm fall into the clean white bowl of the porcelain sink. Amy was never late to work. Not once in her whole damn life did she ever show up to that newsroom with anything less than five minutes to spare before the morning briefing. Her producer Dan expected this from her now that their staff was dwindling in number after the last round of budget cuts. But on this day, as she threw on a gray nylon sweater and corduroy jeans cinched by a snazzy black belt and matching socks, she thought would be an exception.
And when she walked into the briefing room a few minutes late, an overwhelming sense of dread dragging behind her and saw Dan's face and he wasn't upset, she knew something else bigger had happened. She couldn't shake the words he screamed at her out of her mind as she raced down the hallway to get her cameraman.
"I don't know what happened. People are saying somebody flew a fucking plane into the side of it! The whole thing looks like it's about to collapse. Get your ass down there, now! We have to get it as it falls. These images are going worldwide!" Dan gasped at the end like he was having a heart attack.
Amy couldn't find her cameraman Jose so she pushed through the front doors she'd just walked through, notepad and phone in hand, and jumped back into her crappy two-door sedan. She turned and looked as the screeching wail of sirens blew past her in the crowded street. She flicked on the radio, turned to the public news station.
The woman on the radio kept saying: "There has been an attack."
Amy Greatman washed the soapy water into her dark brown hair. She caught a glimpse in the mirror above her sink that portions were now shaded gray. She traced the small curve of the scar hooked over her left eye with her index finger, then let her weathered palm fall into the clean white of the porcelain sink. Her reflection emanated stone dedication honed over decades of investigation. Amy held certain tenets, a major one was never be late. Not once in her entire damnable life had she ever shown up at that newsroom with anything less than ten minutes to spare preparing for the morning meeting. Her producer Dan expected it now that staff was dwindling from the recent budget cuts. Independent media was a brutal landscape at any time, let alone one where the major media groups controlled most of it. Amy threw on a gray nylon sweater and corduroy jeans cinched with a black belt and matching socks, and was out with the door with plenty of time to spare.
The first thing to strike her was the silence. Manhattan had never been a place of concentration, of slowness, of still behavior. But this was next-level. Amy could hear the wind blow the boughs of the few trees planted along her street. It was eerie. The main location of her indie news program Instant Freedom!, which streamed its episodes to half the globe, was a few train stops away. She walked into the briefing room with a sense of dread, brought on from the train passengers and their dead stares and the lull that entered her car as it rattled. Dan's face confirmed it when Amy walked into the room. The words he screamed at her echoed through her mind as she raced down the small carpeted hallway to find her cameraman.
"I don't know what in the hell happened. The first wire reports say somebody flew a fucking plane into the side of it. The whole fucking tower is about to collapse. Get your ass there now! We have to get that image. It's going worldwide," Dan gasped.
Amy ducked her head into Jose's small changing room, but he was not there. She left a message on his small desk, then tromped further down the hallway to Gary's office. He was the senior journalist on staff, but as of late had taken to commentary. She knew he would have interest, even if he couldn't work a camera. She gave two tiny knocks on his door, but he didn't turn around. She said his name, but then picked up on the fact that he was listening to the radio, the giant public news station.
The woman on the broadcast repeated: "There has been some sort of attack..."
"I'm going down there," Amy said to his back. When he turned, his face was ashen and torn with fear. She had never seen it on his tough face.
"Be careful," he said. He never said that. "I am going to stay with this for a bit."
Amy went back out to the hallway to her office, grabbed her notepad and a small film camera, and headed up to the front doors. She jumped back into her beat up two door sedan, then whipped her head around as a screeching wall of sirens blew down the street. She twisted the knob on the radio.
"There has been some sort of attack..."
The major change would be the introduction of a character (Gary) who I had introduced much later in the book but found it made little sense. I have since decided to flesh out more scenes with Amy and Gary in another chapter, and thought he could use a basic introduction here. And there are of course many other differences. This passage got a couple hundred words longer, but that won’t always be the case. In general, there should be a good balance over the drafts between cuts and additions, and over the course of this process there should begin to appear a novel. The number of drafts isn’t the main thing to consider, it is how the plot, characters and entire story is changing through each one. Now that I have a good pattern to establish for my rewrites I have a good rhythm to my churning them out. I’m not sure where the next entry in this series will go but it will continue to follow the course of this manuscript.
Hello and welcome to a new decade. Long-time readers will surely know what to expect out of me around this time: a look back at all the reading and work I did over the last year and a reflection upon the (revamped) 2019 Reading List. And like last year I won’t disappoint, but I’m also hoping to use this post as a re-envisioning of John Abraham the author. First I wanted to get to the books I read this year now that I’m taking a deeper dive into each work.
First of all, I’m not counting books I technically read in 2019 but considered part of the previous year’s reading list, which does shorten things a bit. But I am also realizing that I gained a lot more in my close reading despite not getting to as many books. Ann Patchett proved she is a genuine great storyteller, Emma Cline showed me a contemporary woman author can have as much punch as anyone before or after, and unfortunately Edan Lepucki displayed some of the opposite qualities. As readers know this year continues a trend of reading more contemporary female authors, and Katherine Dunne was one of the best I have encountered. I rounded out the group on a local note with Julie Schumacher.
I then pivoted to the genre of my current manuscript (science fiction) by reading Robert Heinlein, considered a master of the form. And possibly my closest read of the year was also my most disappointing, as I struggled for two months puzzling through why many of the stories of an anthology I read were considered the “best.” And on the last day of the year I posted my review of a book my editor suggest I read when she got through an initial (and awful) first draft of my own manuscript. And just like last year, eliminating most of my “other” types of reading left open a larger chunk of time to catch up on my non-fiction at work. This allowed me to read quite a few books I have wanted to for a long time: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Understanding Media by the late great Marshall McLuhan, The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, Failed States by the legendary Noam Chomsky, and a couple that found their way to me through the bookstore where I work: Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump by Rick Reilly and Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Account Right Now by tech pariah Jaron Lanier.
All told I fell quite a bit short of my total last year, getting through 14 books, which is much less than the 25 from last year. While I could feel bad about that, lately I’ve been reading the travails of those who got to way more books and it has confirmed for me that I'm on the right track regardless of how many titles I hit in a year. While it is great to catalogue each book you read one should not put too much stock in the number. While I did not get to as many books this year, for those that I did I took my time and really considered my reaction, as well as what I learned (about myself, about society, about writing, about whatever). And I have to say this has been a very successful year of reading.
So, how did I do on my other goals for the year? I would say major accomplishments were posting a much better short story to the blog, and finally starting on the Writing Life Series (parts one, two and three are here if you missed them). And the original post (“What’s a Writer For?”) still languishes on my computer, but I hope to finally post that and a similar one (“What’s a Reader For?”) by the time I reach five years writing for this site in the summer. I am also planning a fourth entry in the “How to Write a Book” series now that I’m deep into rewrites on my manuscript.
Long-time readers will once again recognize that I’ve been compiling these reflections on my years for a long time now, and while I enjoy them I don’t put such pressure on myself to complete goals like I once did. So what’s on tap for the next year and decade? Not much in the way of change. Even though I didn’t make much headway on it this year, I am still planning on mixing up the series with other genres (drama, poetry, graphic novel) and still hope to write more about other mediums (up next in the Netflix series will be Orange is the New Black). And while I’m still working on earlier goals (don’t over-promise and under-deliver, keep diversifying the list with non-old white guy authors) after doing this for years now I can see how it has affected and improved my writing. Simply having a broad comparison of other writers can help you hone your own voice.
Until then, as I stated last time the next book on my list will be Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. And thanks to all of you who have stuck around reading my posts on this here website blog for the past (almost) five years.
Hello readers and welcome to the third in a 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 and the second is here if you missed them. And without further ado, here is the third installment in the Writing Life.
Listening to editors. This is another general piece of advice I have written about before but also struggled with, and I thought it was a great subject to talk about as writers are only as good as their editors. I have come to understand this through the Reading List since many of the books I had issues with could have used stronger editing. So how do we writers make ourselves listen to those voices who tell us things about our writing we may not want to hear? I reached out to one of my editors Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial (you may remember her excellent input from my “How to Write a Book” series) about this very situation. Here was some of her response:
“While you as the writer know your story inside and out, there is something to be said for coming at a story from an outside perspective. This fresh set of eyes can help catch issues that you may not be able to see, simply from being too close to it..”
I thought this hits the nail pretty much on the head, and helps point to what we need to think about as we work on our drafts. For however many versions of it you may go over, you’re still just seeing it with your own eyes, and your own imaginative voice. It’s not until those same words get pored over by a professional who does this for a living can they truly measure up and be ensured to flow. And I have to stress: if you find a good editor, hang onto them and listen to them! A good editor will be up front with you about whether or not to take their advice, how much to listen, and other details that form the basis of the relationship. This insight from Anne was also worth thinking about:
“An editor's loyalty is to the manuscript in front of them, which means we want it to be a strong piece of writing. Our advice, then, is to aid in that goal.”
It’s important not to think of your editor as being in an opposition role; rather, they are here to help guide your book or story into a better shape. There will be plenty of other voices out there looking to tear down your work. Stick with those who give you feedback that actually improves your writing. I know it can be difficult when we have such singular visions about our work. But the more you learn to form a collaborative relationship with your editor, the easier it becomes to see your writing from another perspective. Because that is a lot of what listening is: having the empathy to open up and see things from another’s viewpoint, a not-to-easy task in today’s oversaturated world of infotainment.
So listen to others, but especially your editor. If they are doing their job, yours should be made that much easier.
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 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.
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.
Hello readers and welcome to 2019. All right, we’re a month in but who’s counting? Just the calendars?
Long-time readers will recall that I’ve been doing some sort of fiction reading and posting since 2016, and last year I decided to just make this a regular series. And again, I’m back with a post looking over the year and what these authors taught me. Just a few quick hits: both Margaret Atwood and Emily St. John Mandel taught me how to write an incredible, dystopian tale; Donna Tartt showed me how to maintain such control over one’s writing that you can give away the ending; Virginia Woolf showed me (and many male authors of her own time) how to spin a dramatic life out of a single day; DeLillo quite simply blew me away with his immense talent; Joyce Carol Oates illustrated family life in ways I never thought possible; Flannery O’Connor deftly proved how to weave religious themes into secular morality tales; James Baldwin showed how to speak boldly and causticly about our racist American society; and Chekhov gave me a master class in short story writing at the end of the year (I also shoved in two more story collections into the first month of this year).
I also delved into a brilliant Netflix series, took a detour into drama and finally made it to a graphic novel (albeit also not until this year). And I was again able to blast through a fair amount of phenomenal nonfiction at my day job, which this year included Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, Naomi Klein’s climate polemic This Changes Everything, the late Anthony Bourdain's second collection The Nasty Bits, Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, Daniel Kahneman's masterful Thinking Fast and Slow, and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. All told, while I didn’t quite manage to get everything shoved into 2018 I read around 25 books, which if you’re keeping score at home is about twice the amount I have been able to get to in years past.
Looking back, I’d have to say while I met the overall goal of reading more fiction, I still have a ways to go including non-white and female authors. While I made some strides in that direction this year, it is something I am going to continue to work on and include in my reading lists (and as always, I’m open to any recommendations). As I stated last year, the Reading List is going to be an ongoing, never-ending series for the rest of my career, so I am not concerned with promising a certain amount of titles per year anymore.
This brings me to my second overall lesson, which is how to switch up this series. For three years now, with each work I have attempted to draw out at least two major lessons for writers. Some authors had many more than this, some barely made it at all. After all this time I have decided I have illustrated this enough, and now hope to do a more “review” style post on each work, describing what I liked and didn’t like, what worked for the story, and whether or not I would recommend this to other writers.
Regarding some of my other goals from last year: I was able to begin a series called “How to Write a Book” - if you missed any of it the first time around part one (Ideas & Outline) is here, part two (Drafting) is here, and both of parts three (Editing) can be found here and here. The “Writing” series continues to be a no-show, mostly because I have been working on a blog post titled “What are writers for” for a few months and it’s still not done. But I hope to get that series at least begun in 2019. I also hope to keep broadening my horizons in terms of inspiration, and to that end I hope to cover more Netflix shows, and of course the other genre/types such as drama, poetry, and graphic novels. And now that I’m down to a single magazine subscription (Poets & Writers, which I would highly recommend) I would like to read even more nonfiction at work throughout the year.
Overall I would say this was my most successful year of reading, both in terms of books read and in how much I learned. And even though I don’t work with her any more, I’d like to again extend a thank you to the coworker who encouraged me to include more contemporary women authors on my list. I hope to continue that trend with other non-gender-binary and non-white authors. As always, thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you gained some writing insight through these posts, and I really hope I was able to encourage everyone to read more in what sure looks like America’s dark age. And as I posted last time, the first novel for the revamped Reading List will be Ann Patchett's 2011 novel State of Wonder. Thanks for reading!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cats. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.