A light snow falls as I slip into the distance of the deserted highway, the billboard’s logo – a red and white checkerboard like the one I always put on her letters – flashing by my eyes, then dancing in flashbulb-violet haze before melting in the stab of my headlights.
We ran in different circles, if “circles” is the word you use in a high school graduating class of seventy-six. I ran in the circles of her smile and the way her eyes sparkled blue and her neat script read “Seventy-six in 76!” as she touched my arm and handed the yearbook back.
We exchanged addresses with yearbooks, like everyone did, but she was cheerleaders and girls in school colors, breasts hidden behind textbooks. I was pot-smoking boys in jeans, splay-legged in study hall, waiting. Her father was the principal. Mine drank. Still, I saw her every day in band and in the halls and she smiled at me in soft sweaters, brown hair framing her face.
I stare at black beyond my headlights and see red pencil scratches in the corner of an envelope, a checkerboard, red filling in, white showing through, that winter after graduation. Letters. Hers kind and thoughtful with deep shades of homesickness, “lost without circles in South Bend!” Mine awkward, but strengthened with longing and the encouragement I put on like my Navy-issue coat that winter in Waukegan – and the way she smiled when I arrived on campus after she pleaded, “I need to talk to someone I know. Notre Dame’s only an hour by bus!” And we laughed about the letters, the red and white logo I drew on every one, the checkerboard – “Purina Mailbox Chow!” – she sang it as she kissed my cheek, and how sweet she was, introducing me to her friends in their short college skirts and black tights, clear young eyes, and how the beer was stale in plastic cups at the mixer, the band too loud, and how my polite refusal to dance at each friend’s invitation stayed on my lips all night, waiting for her to ask, for her to look up at me from behind her sleepy eyelids, and then the long night awake on the floor of her dorm room, chattering until I knew she was asleep, listening silently to the soft fall of her breath in the bed just beyond my reach, wondering if she would say any word but “friend.”
But we ran in different circles.
And checkerboards no longer on letters over the years, arriving like echoes through a valley, each fainter and farther from the last, until just yesterday morning it’s been two years. And the letter in my pocket, in her husband’s hand, saying, “She would have wanted you here.” And I’m driving, lost in red and white checkerboards as snowflakes dance in my headlights.
In writing Patterns, I had in mind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote; “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” The hypnotic blur of snowflakes in the glare of head lamps, the graphic elements of an advertising hoarding repeated over and over in letters, and the fading echoes of the relationship at the heart of the story, work together to submerge the reader, as well as the writer, into Fitzgerald’s metaphor.
Grindstone Literary 2019 International Flash Fiction 500 Grand Prize Winner
Published in “The Vestal Review,” Issue 36, Summer 2010
There are two certain truisms: Life can inspire great art and Tragedy is the crucible of creativity. This can be debated, of course. Personally, I find crucible too hyperbolic for my tastes. But there’s truth in there nonetheless.
Allegedly, Bram Stoker was inspired to write his novel, Dracula, by a bout of late-night digestive distress that revealed his villain to him in a nightmare. I mention Stoker here in connection with myself only to illustrate the ubiquitous nature of digestive distress. Everyone from time to time must deal with the odd undigested bit of beef or blot of mustard it seems. Not just Ebenezer.
What does that have to do with writing, you may ask (and if you do, please speak up for my old ears)! Do digestive issues make you a better writer? Does the metaphor “writers working out their shit” still resonate? Are digestive tropes overused? The simple answers are, in no particular order:
I’m sorry, what? I bet you can’t use “trope” in a sentence It’s too soon to bring up Christmas.
But of course with simple answers, you get what you pay for. You hope the answers are easy, I hear you say, because the questions are so hard. Is the only hope left to monetize that gut sick feeling that pervades this current moment; whipsawed by catastrophe and betrayed by cowardice? The world tilts on its axis, orbits shift, and the long slow drift into the sun begins. Monetize Fear! shouted through a bullhorn is the firebomb hurled at the King.
The squire announced, Sire, the peasants are revolting! The king replied, Indeed, I’ve always felt that. The Queen cried, Let them eat fear! And the barricades came down.
But with your toes in the soothing sans serif of a PowerPoint slide, Monetize Fear! could be the latest self-help exhortation, an appeal to the crumbling universe of the soul! Also, An appeal to the crumbling universe of the soul! would make a great motto if it weren’t so cumbersome. A motto for what, I don’t know. But the King’s machinations are evident for all those with eyes to see. The spirit that motivates them a stench for all those with nostrils to smell.
In all cases (in this modern reductivist age) everything reduces to clicks, as neatly as the word itself. As the song goes:
Clicks, clicks, clicks! You know it rhymes with dicks? It makes our mad minds sick. Making fortunes for those pricks!
But there was an earlier, redacted lyric, found recently by earnest archivists which has caused some trouble for Explainers today wherein the final stanza read:
I’m eating all these nails Making fortunes for those pricks!
Though the line transgresses the song’s inherent rhythmic sensibilities like a second left shoe when you’re leaving in a hurry, it has been accepted by a small but adamant circle of scholars as canonical. Even as the Arch Bishop recently and weirdly admited, the appearance of the lyric in the song is as unsettling as coming across “a severed thumb in the silverware drawer.” Canonical it is and canonical it shall remain.
The opposing views on this piece of scholarly discovery form a cloud of opposition, ranging from the That’s Fucking Stupid camp to others with more nuanced objections. About this opposition only two things are certain: 1) Life imitates Art and Art imitates Life in a whirling carousel spinning so fast even Joni Mitchel hurls. Every word written, a tattoo. An indelible sign the writer has been there. Even if the words remain only in the mind, when all is gone and humanity sinks into savagery and blood, a nano-switch of memory has been thrown, the cosmos changed slightly. But permanently.
Onward it spins with no brass ring to clutch, no exit to be found, painted ponies laughing madly. If further evidence is needed of the dizzying nature of it all, consider the following bit of weirdness, which occurred due to Life and was wrangled desperately onto the page as Art by yours truly for no more salient reason than to affirm by demonstration that even in the heat of a crucible, the spirit creates.
Ants – Jim Noonan, 711 words
The teacher’s voice droned in his head like a circling horsefly on a hot summer day. Take a lesson from the ants; they toil without ceasing without complaint are never late in their assignments or out of their place. Ants, amazing ants, their rigid social structures showing signs of intelligence.
He sat up abruptly, a red sticky note clinging to his forehead from the desk. Take a lesson from WHAT?!! A chill seized him, like an injection to the marrow of his bones. Goddamn ants! He plucked the sticky note off and read it, STAY AWAKE!
It had been ants, millions of them, that chased his family off their farm. They appeared with the harvest and began to eat the crops. They fought them for months with the sprays from the Cooperative Extension, but that only slowed them down for a while. Nothing seemed to stop them. The crop duster his father hired only killed the barn cat Mouser and seemed to antagonize the ants.
Mouser was buried in the side yard amongst the sun flowers where she deposited the bodies of the mice she caught from the barn. The crop duster drove them back for a while, but gave them time to regroup and organize. He was standing at the patio door with baby Jessica when he saw the first wave, moving fast, swarming the tractor in the field and the quad runners and motorcycles stored in the barn. Baby Jessica giggled as the vehicles crumbled before their eyes from the infinite torrent of tiny bites–death by a billion cuts–until glass, rubber, plastic, and metal seemed to dissolve like candy floss in the rain.
A second wave washed over the outbuildings and lapped against the west side of the barn until the whole structure leaned dangerously. A third wave swept past the first waves, weaving so as to not interfere with them, and came straight for the house. His parents snatched him and baby Jessica up like rag dolls as they stood mesmerized by the black wave undulating over the long side yard towards them. They bolted through the house and out the back, dad kicking the door off its hinges as they ran through, sprinting as if for their lives.
His world swung in wild arcs in front of him as they ran, and he could hear and feel dad’s frantic breath. Mom’s face blurred into view, the image so fleeting he didn’t recognize the terror in her eyes. He smiled through some ancient reflex and a feeling of warmth, like heavy blankets, enveloped him.
Dad threw him head-first into the cab of the truck and his head bounced off the steel dashboard. He slumped into the passenger footwell, stunned and on his back, helpless like a turtle. The engine cranked and revved to a shriek as dad floored the accelerator and yanked the gear lever into reverse. The passenger door flew open as mom grabbed the handle and the truck sped away from her. He felt the clatter against his skull as the tires machine-gunned gravel against the undercarriage as they careened down the driveway.
With a thud, the truck lurched to a stop, slamming the passenger door shut, the truck’s right rear tail light shattered, tire spinning uselessly in the mud of the ditch at the end of the driveway.
He clawed his way out of the footwell and opened the door for mom running down the driveway. He had to brace it open with his shoulder, clutching precariously to the handle above the door as dad jack-hammered the transmission between Drive to Reverse, until the truck lurched free just as mom jumped in with baby Jessica. The door slammed shut from acceleration as the tires howled against the pavement and laid two black strips of rubber rapidly away from the farm. They sat crowded together on the cold, vinyl truck seating, panting and trembling. He turned and watched through the truck’s cracked rear window as the farm receded into the distance, until at last, engulfed by the teeming black wave, the whole scene disappeared from view.
It was some time and many miles before dad broke the silence.
“I was coming back to get you,” he said in answer to mom’s stone face.
In her book “Wild Mind, Living the Writer’s Life,” writer, poet, and teacher Natalie Goldberg paints a wonderful metaphor of writing and overcoming the things that interfere with getting to the heart of the matter with your words.
She says to imagine being under a big sky where all around in every direction you see the horizon. She writes, “That big sky is wild mind. I’m going to climb up to that sky straight over our heads and put one dot on it with a Magic Marker. She that dot? That dot is what Zen calls monkey mind or what western psychology calls part of conscious mind. We give all our attention to that dot. So when it says we can’t write, that we’re no good, are failures, fools for even picking up a pen, we listen to it.”
It’s true from my experience as a writer that a million things distract. The buzz and static of our daily lives pulls us from our course as writers. The critical voice in our heads reinforces our perceived inadequacies and paralyzes us with self-doubt.
Goldberg continues, “This goes on endlessly. This is monkey mind. This is how we drift. We listen and get tossed away. We put all of our attention on that dot. Meanwhile, wild mind surrounds us. Western psychology calls wild mind the unconscious but I think unconscious is a limiting term. If it is true that we are all interpenetrated and interconnected, then wild mind includes mountains, rivers, Cadillacs, humidity, plains, emeralds, poverty, old streets in London, snow, and the moon. A river and a tree are not unconscious. They are part of wild mind. I do not consider even a dream unconscious. A dream is a being that travels up from wild mind into dot/monkey mind/conscious to wake us up.”
“So our job as writers is not to diddle around our whole lives in the dot but to take one big step out of it and sink into the big sky and write from there. Let everything run through us and grab as much of it as we can with pen and paper. Let yourself live in something that is already rightfully yours–your own wild mind.”
Sound advice, I think. So I would encourage you as you write, let your mind drift to the immense canopy of sky encircling you. Step out of the dot and plunge deep into the vast consciousness of everything. Let the words and ideas flow without reservation. Take your writing life back from obedience to the dot. Because, after all, it is only a dot.
WASHINGTON: In a surprise Executive Order, President for Life Trump abolished the Department of Labor, writing in Sharpie on the order itself the longstanding agency was “stupid” and “a total loser.” The order directs the only remaining Executive Branch department, the Department of Ass Clowns, to immediately replace the Department of Labor with four of President for Life Trump’s golf buddies whom the order declares are his “greatest friends on earth!” Unless it’s an investigation (as indicated in a footnote) in which case President for Life Trump states he “doesn’t know the losers.”
In a related story, Trump today instructed his golf buddies (who have yet to decide on a name for their (I suppose?) agency to immediately cease publishing unemployment statistics for humans and begin publishing unemployment statistics for animals, excluding bugs because bugs are “yuck!” the directive instructed. The turmoil in the news cycle lasted only a moment before the tweet at the top this post hit the fan (so to speak).
The (in one case literally) ham-handed nature of the propaganda campaign only underscored the hypocrisy of President for Life Trump’s (I suppose?) administration. Because (#OfFuckingCourse) it does. It’s another President for Life Trump LIE!
Those familiar with the (I suppose?) process the golf buddies intend to use intentionally ignores the, in some case catastrophically, severe UNDER-employment besetting dogs, birds, and lizards as most of them need to work a second or even a third job to make ends meet in addition to their positions in President for Life Trump’s administration.
Seth Meyers nails it with this installment of A Closer Look.
Any similarities to people living or brain-dead, is entirely coincidental.
Heart beat steady as he screams down the track. The air feels thick like water buffeting his helmet. His body thrums with strength and spirit but no panic. Panic can’t help here. His instincts must be free to act. His eyes focus on a single point at the outside of turn three, a smudge on the white concrete wall rocketing towards him. The Indiana sky is blue and indifferent to the scene below it. Corner entry.
A howling crescendo of angry gods rages just inches behind his head as the engine blasts out seven hundred horsepower. He keeps his foot hard on the accelerator – 205 miles per hour. There can be no hesitation.
Strapped to his seat–fastened tight by belts at his shoulders, his waist, between his legs–car and body move as one creature, controlled by some instinct of mind and metal. A slight pressure on the wheel, more willing the car to turn than forcing it. The car swoops to the left. Turn in.
It happens in an instant.
The car pitches slightly, a fraction more than the previous lap. He feels it in his seat, along the backs of his legs, up his spine, before his conscious mind can register it. Instinct pounces, reactions quickening beneath his mind–honed by sweat and fear. A flick of the wheel to catch the slide and a sudden lurch as the car spears right, full throttle into the concrete.
In slow motion the car melts into the wall then is vomited back onto the track in an orange-black ball of exploding fuel and flesh and metal. A ragdoll, still strapped to its seat, ricochets off the catch fence and tumbles and slides down the track.
The howling gods are silenced. The sound of brittle glass scraping slate rings in the air as hundreds of fragments slide to a smoldering stop.
He sees his ragdoll self one hundred yards down the track lolling over one last time, the top of its head sheared open. His eyes follow the trail of broken body and machine to the black scar on the concrete wall. Wreckage burns below him like an offering. Flesh, blood, and brain poured out like wine.
He hangs on the breeze, struggling to keep his eyes on the scene below him. Spectators cry out and point, their horror piercing him as the breeze shifts and time dissolves. He sees a driver hoisting the trophy, a silver curiosity. He wonders who won. The question expands and dissolves like a soap bubble around him. The horizon folds in on itself. He sees a sloping field, a small bronze marker, faded by many Nebraska winters bearing a name that no longer has meaning to him–Gordon.
He turns again and the blue of sky rolls back revealing the perfect black of nothingness. He smiles as it absorbs him.
Recently I was discussing Rules for Writing with a writer friend, Karmen, while in our respective quarantines and we agreed that the urge to rebel against The Rules is strong and that a rebellious spirit may often be inspirational!
My particular inspiration came in response to a particular guy in an online writers’ group, a supreme asshole, a reasonably competent writer, not remotely famous, but with a hyper-inflated opinion of himself who would opine at great length in the forums about all sorts Rules for Writing one of which (memorably to me) was that you can’t have a character in a story who isn’t integral to the plot, claiming in all caps in one post that: “YOU CAN’T HAVE A WAITRESS WALK INTO A SCENE JUST TO TAKE AN ORDER!”
Well, I think it was Plato who said, Never speak in absolutes, and I agree. Speaking in absolutes is bad, but even worse is acting in absolutes especially when it comes to writing. When I hear “advice” like that, I generally insist on immediately doing exactly the opposite. Witness the following.
Topic II – As Much as any Writer, Characters Need a Reason for Being
Lesson A: Waitresses
The sage says, “You can’t have a waitress simply walk into your story, take an order, then walk out. She has to be there for a reason. Otherwise, why bother writing her in?”
Kim fishes a Camel from Tim’s pack and lights it. “We’ve been waiting for hours. What’s so important we had to come to a diner? I could have cooked.”
“Just give it a minute more.” Tim smiles wanly and stares towards the door to the kitchen, fairly willing it to swing open at any moment. His head throbs. He rubs his temple but smiles at Kim.
“Look!” Kim crushes out her cigarette. “That pizza place across the street seems nice. See the people walking out? They look contented. Full. Some even have leftovers. Jesus! That’s it. I’m going across the street.”
Kim knifes her hand at Tim’s face and stands. “This is why,” she says, “this is why we never go out. This… this-right-fucking-here.” She lights another cigarette and blows smoke in his face as she passes. She swings the front door open, and says (more to room than to Tim), “Leave it to you to pick the one goddamn place in the city without a waitress.”
The doors swings shut and Tim’s stomach growls miserably. He smiles in the empty diner and wishes for a waitress.
As Ian Fleming’s brutally sexist hero James Bond might say, “You only live twice.” That’s another gem of insight that lies beneath Goldberg’s ideas on writing. That and the idea of time, which we’ll get to in a bit. She states her thesis directly:
Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they’ve been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and details.
Writers are the ones for whom the bell tolls. That explains why tragedy can often be fodder for the writer’s imagination.
Writers go back outside in the rain with a notebook in front of them and a pen in hand. They look at the puddles, watch them fill, watch the rain splash in them.
Immediately after this Singing in the Rain image, Goldberg switches to a Ayn Rand palette and paints a grim view of things:
Employers pay salary for time. That is the basic commodity that human beings have that is valuable. We exchange our time in life for money.
And then that meshes well with current thinking on work – home balance and any other kind of balance you may have in mind.
This raises a question? How much time do you have? To get a sense of it, clap your hands once to signal the beginning of your time and the clap when it ends you’ll never hear. So how valuable do you think that time is? How much would you give to have more of it? Time is money, they say as they casually work themselves into bondage.
Writers, if they are smart, won’t sell too much of it. They know once it’s sold, they might be able to buy a second car, but there will be no place they can go to sit still, no place to dream on.
Are writers smart, though? I can only speak for myself. *shrug emoji*
“Dark is she, but brilliant! Black are her wings, black on black! Her lips are red as rose, kissing all of the Universe! She is Lilith…” Lilith Ritus, from the German by Joseph Max
I met her in a bar, an indistinct lounge inside an indistinct hotel somewhere outside of Pittsburgh. I couldn’t tell you why I was there. I remember a suitcase and cleaned, pressed shirts like the memory of a television episode seen long ago, but fuzzy like a point of land on the horizon of an empty sea, something shrouded in swirling mist that you might be approaching or leaving behind forever. That is all I remember. That, and her eyes. I remember them distinctly. Luminous and unfathomable, gleaming grey and silver with pupils as black as midnight, dead-black and empty.
She sat alone at the bar. I watched her drain one drink after another, her lips slick and crimson, her tongue licking them slowly as she placed each empty glass down and picked up another. I sipped my beer and thought of only two reasons a woman would drink like that—pain and longing. I wondered if I would become acquainted with either as I left my table and approached the bar.
I felt as if I were entering a dream. I know it’s mad to even suggest it, but it felt as if something, some force, was compelling me to walk across that bar. I approached her with a confident stride and smiled an easy smile. Her eyes met mine and I felt a surge of predatory cunning and my smile twisted into a sly grin as I sidled up to the bar. She appraised me slowly, her eyes drinking me in.
My mouth moved almost of its own accord. “What’s your sign?”
Despite the flood of all I don’t remember that night, those words are burned distinctly into my memory, uttered awkwardly, my voice adolescent and cracking, all the confidence I had felt just moments before gone. I sought anywhere to hide, to disappear into the shadows until our eyes met again and all thought of escape evaporated. A smile creased slowly across her lips, revealing perfect, white teeth. Her smile unfolded like the petals of a flower and her eyes radiated a strange light. I shuddered as they took me in.
“Scorpio,” she said. “Sit. Buy me a drink.” She patted the stool beside hers and glossy black fingernails tapped gently against the leather. She swiveled her hips, shifted her legs, and motioned me to sit.
We talked for hours as I slipped into the easy cadence of her voice, peering into eyes that asked me question after question until I felt myself burst open inside. Memories sprang to mind, vivid and shocking. My ears rang hollow with the pain and clarity of them as a tear rolled down my cheek. She nodded gently and drained her drink, her tongue playing along the inside of the glass. I shuddered as electric fingers brushed my arm and she leaned her body easily against me and breathed, “Come to my room, lover. I’ll make it better.”
In her room, she eased me back onto the bed. “Relax. I’ll do everything,” she said. I started to say something, something about how much I had had to drink, not being able to…but her touch was electric, like sparks against my skin. Her smile broadened in a practiced way and I felt suddenly naked, vulnerable. She straddled me and pressed her lips to my ear as she slowly unbuttoned her blouse.
“What’s your name?” she whispered, as the warmth of her breath filled my head. Before I could answer, she pressed an arc of hungry kisses across my cheek to my mouth. Her lips were warm and alive. I felt a bright burst of citrus as her tongue met mine and I tried to remember if there had been citrus in her drinks. As her tongue explored, I tasted stinging spice and a sharp burning sensation began to spread through my mouth.
“Relax,” she smiled and I felt myself go limp, my skin tingling with a numbness that danced like fire over my body. She worked her hips in small circles as she lowered herself against me, her eyes fixed on mine, her heat searching for the only part of my body still coursing with sensation. An electric shock of pleasure raced through me as her body enveloped me. Numbness danced like cold fire over my body, soaking deeply into my useless limbs. All sensation in my body seemed compressed, as if unseen hands squeezed and corralled every nerve impulse, rerouting them, amplifying them a hundred fold, a thousand fold, focusing them with an unbearable intensity on the one part of my body still able to feel, to respond, to eagerly accept whatever she might have for it. Her eyes hardened to a purposeful stare and she began rocking slowly, rhythmically, as if to music only she could hear, slowly pulling away then plunging down with a grinding twist of her hips, her eyes always fixed on mine. Inside her I felt a magical smoothness like warm silk and a coaxing, persistent pressure, as if a knowing fist clenched and unclenched around me as she moved. A terrible surge built within me like a river, swollen and treacherous, abruptly channeled through a narrow canyon, angry waters roiling and churning, violently seeking release.
My mind began to drift on a sea of ether. The word dead burst like a soap bubble inside my head and she startled, interrupted. Her eyes narrowed, the corners of her mouth curled down, and she pressed her hips down on me with all of her weight. The muscles of her abdomen began to quiver with some new effort and she lowered her face to mine as her fingernails dug into my numb chest. Her eyes searched deep into mine, boring like molten silver through wax, as the clenching and unclenching inside of her became maddening. An airless whimper bled from my lips and my eyes followed a rivulet of sweat trickle across the swell of her breast and drop silently to my chest. I heard her voice in my head,—Behold—and her long black nails raised crimson welts down my chest.
The filament of my mind sparked and broke free, jolting and jangling dangerously. My world tilted sharply and I saw our reflection in the mirror on the wall—her straddling my limp form, her haunches smooth and quivering, as powerful as a predator’s. Her body kneading me slowly into oblivion. And I saw in a strobe-like flash, her tail, glossy black and segmented, arching up from between her legs. I saw at its tip a needle-sharp stinger dripping liquid-like drops of green honey. Her body convulsed in a final throe, crushing me inside her, and the fang of her tail struck with lightning speed. A shudder shook through my body, but I felt no pain, only delirious shocks that coursed through me, and a burning sensation that began to grow and spread throughout my body. I tried to scream as the fire of her venom emptied into me, but my lungs had no breath. I tried to close my eyes but her voice in my head commanded them open. I stared pitifully into twin pale moons surrounding infinite black voids. Drawing me in, crushing me, ejaculating me into the silver oblivion of her eyes.
“She is Lilith, who leadeth forth the hordes of the Abyss, and leadeth man to liberation! She is the irresistible fulfiller of all lust, seer of desire. First of all women was she—Lilith, not Eve, was the first! Her hand brings forth the revolution of the Will and true freedom of the mind! She is KI-SI-KIL-LIL-LA-KE, Queen of the Magic! Look on her in lust and despair!” Lilith Ritus, from the German by Joseph Max
As I lay here now in this hotel room, I do not know how it is that I can still relate this story. My belly has swollen dangerously in just the last few hours and in these preceding minutes I have felt—something—moving within me. I’ve seen it travel like a ripple under my taut flesh from one side of my belly to the other and I’ve felt a terrible swirling inside me. It is only moments now, I am sure, before whatever is to be will happen.
I feel the tension, the pressure building. I sense the indomitable instinct of the thing inside me to be free. To be born. In one last burst, like hot, moist lips against me, I feel it again—her stinger—piercing me to my core. In a last orgiastic convulsion, I deliver the gruesome offspring within me and silently wait to expire as the crimson-smeared thing, crawling black and glistening from my belly, turns its silver eyes to mine and begins to devour me.
After a long (perhaps too long) holiday break, I’m back and continuing with the Natalie Goldberg series. I hope the New Year is treating you well and let’s get on with it!
Wednesday Writing Craft Series: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg, Part XII
“If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake,
hired a band, goodness sake.
If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake.
How-ja do. How-ja do. How-ja do?”
Practically everyone knows how to bake a cake. Whether from a mix or from scratch, the procedure is similar.
When you bake a cake, you have ingredients: sugar, flour, butter, baking soda, eggs, milk. You put them in a bowl and mix them up, but this does not make a cake. This makes goop. You have to put them in the oven and add heat or energy to transform it into a cake, and the cake looks nothing like its original ingredients.
It’s an oversimplification but one with a purpose.
In a sense this is what writing is like. You have all these ingredients, the details of your life, but just to list them is not enough. “I was born in Brooklyn. I have a mother and a father. I am female.” You must add the heat and energy of your heart. This is not just any father; this is your father. The character who smoked cigars and put too much ketchup on his steak. The one you loved and hated. You can’t just mix the ingredients in a bowl; they have no life. You must become one with the details in love or hate; they become an extension of your body. Nabakov says, “Caress the divine details.” He doesn’t say, “Jostle them in place or bang them around.” Caress them. Touch them tenderly. Care about what is around you.
Care is the operative word here. A deliberative connection to the words and the writing, one which seeks a better, more nuanced and powerful end. And while the tone that may result could be anything; serious, snark, disdain, it’s the care or the heart with which you approach the task that matters, that makes the difference.
If you use details, you become better skilled at conveying your ecstasy or sorrow.
Oh, Jesus! Politics!
In writing with detail, you are turning to face the world. It is a deeply political act, because you are not just staying in the heat of your own emotions. You are offering up some good solid bread for the hungry.
Bread for the hungry? When you describe writing like that it’s hard to dismiss it as frivolous. You are revealing the details of your life to the world, if even in an oblique way, revealing yourself, your humanness, your uniqueness. Writing then becomes ennobling, uniquely human and transformative and delicious.
Albert Campbell sat bolt upright on the sofa, his panicked eyes dancing to the hammer beat of his heart.
The nightmare again.
The dark hideous corridor, purple light flashing violently at one end, mad shapes–faceless purple silhouettes fleeing the light–howling and clawing blindly around him, dragging him down as they plunged headlong into the waiting teeth of the dark.
Albert rubbed his eyes, drained and disoriented. Each time the nightmare came, and it seemed to come more and more frequently lately, it took longer for his old body to recover. He took slow, regular breaths and surveyed a living room that seemed oddly unfamiliar to him, like it had been rearranged while he slept. Gradually the feeling passed, and he was able to stand and steadied himself against the wall as he walked to the kitchen for a glass of water.
The bill from the DMV sat on the table.
“Oh, shit. Ellen is going to kill me!” he thought. He picked up the letter and turned to his left, reaching for the key hook by the kitchen door but it was empty. He took several slow breaths. He looked for his car keys by the microwave, in the pockets of his overcoat in the hall closet, between the sofa cushions, but he couldn’t find them anywhere. His heart rate crept up. It was 5 o’clock. He could make it on foot if he left now. The sunlight slanting through the windows had shifted from red to deepening purple. He’d have to hurry.
“Ellen will be furious,” he thought as he walked to the street.
She worked so hard to take care of him and their home. The little she asked of him, the occasional chore, like a bill left on the kitchen table, was so little, really.
Albert knew that from the house on Maple Street it was two blocks west, then right on Madison for five blocks, left on Pine Crest for six, then right on Sunset. The DMV was four blocks up on Sunset. He glanced at his wristwatch and picked up his pace.
The second intersection was Millbury, not Madison, so he went farther. Two blocks later he came to Madisonville and discovered his mistake. He crossed to the right and walked seven blocks on Madisonville without ever coming to Pine Crest. Confused, he considered continuing, then realized that by going west on Lafayette he would come to Sunset eventually. He walked three or four more blocks, then stopped. He stared down Lafayette in both directions but couldn’t remember which way he had come from.
He sat on the sidewalk, tired, confused, and mumbling. “Madison to Pine to… no, it was Mason then Pinehurst and left on Sunrise… No, it was….”
He began to weep. “Ellen is going to be so angry with me.”
He watched the sky flare purple as the last rays of sunlight fought the blackness seeping across the sky. The sunset turned everything, even his shadow, purple and unfamiliar to his eyes.
A car pulled up and a young woman stepped out. Albert recognized her red coat. He stood and waved the envelope weakly. “I got lost trying to find the DMV. I have to pay this.”
“Daddy, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. We were worried.” The woman took the envelope gently from him. “Oh, daddy, this is just junk mail. We sold your car. Two years ago? Remember?”
“Ellen will be so angry with me. I told her I would take care of it. She expects me to help out.”
The woman wiped her hand across her eyes and drew a sharp breath. “Let’s go home now, daddy. Come on.” She took his arm and led him to the car.
“No, daddy. We sold the house on Maple Street. You live with me and Bill now. Remember?”
As she drove, he sat silently and considered this woman whose coat he recognized, who called him daddy, whose face was hidden in the purple glow of sunset.
Published in “Hospital Drive,” The Journal of the UVA School of Medicine, Issue 3 – Fall 2008