Category Archives: Writing

Obligations

For two years, Britney lived in a small house in an unincorporated township outside of town and had to drive forty-five minutes to work as a hotel night clerk. She was renting it as a favor to a friend who needed a roommate to help cover the lease. Her neighbors were mostly survivalists and hermits who didn’t like talking, but all of them told her to be careful driving in winter, especially around the crossroads. There were wolves and worse. Some said that there were an unusual number of alien abductions in the area.

Britney never saw any wolves or aliens, but one night during a snowstorm in her second winter her car went off into the ditch next to a crossroads far from home and town. She’d forgotten her cell phone and considered whether or not it was safe to walk back. Then the Devil rolled up in a pickup truck and offered to pull her car out.

That’s what he called himself, at least, the Devil, but he looked more like a sickly, tired Brad Pitt impersonator. He had bags under his eyes. Either way he pulled her car out. She asked, jokingly, if she now owed him her soul. Actually, he said, he wanted to give her his. He wrote on the back of a parking ticket from his truck “My Soul” and gave it to her with a wink and then drove off.

This became a fun story to tell at parties and she kept the note with her to show people. The only ones who didn’t think it was funny were her neighbors who, laconic to begin with, stopped talking to her altogether. Of course people asked her if she felt different, more evil, if she had some sort of power, but of course she didn’t. What good would a soul, even the Devil’s, be to anyone? The only thing that had really changed was that she inexplicably became good at playing blues guitar. She was nothing special, but she was good enough to start playing in a band.

She moved out of the house in the summer and into an apartment a few blocks from the hotel where she worked and could suddenly afford to live because of a promotion and raise. People knew they could rely on her to cover shifts no one wanted, and she was usually the first one the others called when they were sick. Things were looking up. She finally could buy better food and work the hours she wanted.

Then, one night, the Devil checked in. He didn’t recognize her and he looked a lot healthier than he had months before when he pulled her car out. She asked for his name and he said, “The Devil,” with a smirk.

She said, “I have something of yours.”

He looked confused for a moment and then his face went pale. Without another word, he turned around, walked out the door, and didn’t come back.

Younger people with degrees in hospitality kept taking jobs above her and so Britney stayed in middle management, but at least she had a low stress job. It was never supposed to be permanent, but was becoming so. One of the managers, a friend who was no longer there, had roped her into it in college because he was understaffed and needed someone reliable.

Once a week, she played in a house band at a bar called the Parallelogram and one night, she spotted the Devil in the crowd. He sat alone at a corner table nursing a Moscow Mule and studying a mess of papers. Unlike the last time, he looked thinner, more tired.

Between sets, Britney walked over to him and said, “I don’t really think you’re the Devil.”

“What if I’m not?” he asked with a shrug. He recognized her this time, and seemed completely indifferent about her presence.

She pointed at the pile of papers on the table. “What are those?”

“Contracts. What else?”

“Didn’t you get out of that business when you gave me your soul?”

“There ain’t no rest for the wicked. Whether or not you have a soul doesn’t change anything,” was all he said and she went back to the stage.

Even though she hated the commute, Britney loved the solitude of living in the country and was finally able to close on an old family farmhouse. It took a lot longer than she’d planned because new management hadn’t given her a raise in years and cut her benefits, but she got by. All the land around the house now belonged to an industrial operation. They grew some corn hybrid and she never seemed to be around when anyone was actually working in the fields, but sometimes she caught a glimpse of someone walking behind the rows.

One day in late October a snowstorm came through. Even before it hit, people were comparing it to the Halloween Blizzard, so she left early and took her time driving to work, arriving without incident. Outside the hotel, though, she saw the Devil sitting in a beat up Dodge Stratus trying to turn the engine over. He was bald and skinny, like he was going through chemo, and he looked like he was on the verge of tears. “Need help?” she asked and brought her car around to jump his.

When his car was running again, she reached into her pocket and offered him the piece of paper that said, “My Soul.” “Do you want this back?”

“You still have that?” he asked, gawking.

“Well yeah, why not?”

He shook his head. “Everyone’s just so careless about this stuff, these days. Even me.” He stared at the paper for a few moments, took it, and then ripped it up.

“I think I’m going to try to get out of this business again. It’s becoming way too Glengarry Glenn Ross, you know?” he said. He walked over to the passenger’s side door, dragged out a banker’s box full of official looking documents and sat it down on the curb next to a public trash can. “I’m not my job.”

After he’d left, Britney picked up the box and took it inside with her. By the time her shift was over the roads were impassable, so she stayed at the hotel. Because there was nothing else to read, she perused the crumpled and messy contracts, marveling at the numbers and obligations. Neither a businesswoman nor a lawyer, Britney felt an odd sensation come over her, a compulsion, and the beginnings of a scheme.

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The Likely Lads

Ambrose finally customized his ringtone long after anyone he wanted to talk to started texting exclusively. Consequently, he was beginning to dread the sound of one of his favorite songs, The Libertine’s “What Became of the Likely Lads?” but was too lazy to change it to something appropriately awful, like “Tubthumping” or “We Built This City” or the sound of Pyramid Head dragging his sword across the floor. When the opening guitar riff crashed through the formerly silent living room, Ambrose cringed. Worse, the phone didn’t recognize the number so it was either a telemarketer, pollster, collection agency, or the automated voice of any number of local institutions to remind him of an appointment or due date.

“Hello?” he asked, hoping this would be quick. He was sitting on the couch playing Fallout, procrastinating from doing anything productive now that he was off work. How anyone finds the energy to do things after they become independent adults still baffled him.

“Hi… Ambrose,” said someone hesitantly.

“Yes, this is he,” Ambrose said.

“This is Lyle.”

“Lyle.” Ambrose sat up. “How are you? We haven’t talked in… what? Two years?”

“Yeah… I guess it must have been that long. When did we last talk? Do you remember?”

“It must have been… Yeah, it’s been two years. We talked at Katie’s birthday party.”

“What did we talk about?”

Ambrose wasn’t sure where the conversation was going, but he felt there was probably a punchline at the end. This was typical of Lyle. They had been close in high school, had minimal contact in college, and saw each other sporadically around the holidays when they were both visiting family. In all that time, his sense of humor, bizarre and usually only made him and no one else laugh, had not changed at all. For two weeks when they were juniors, he tried to convince their friends that Ambrose, as a freshman, had tried to orchestrate an elaborate cheating ring in Spanish. He hadn’t. When Ambrose confronted him about it, Lyle admitted that he was just trying to see if he could change people’s memories and then laughed.

“Health insurance, I think. We were both griping about not having dental plans, but that it was a good excuse not to go to the dentist,” Ambrose said.

“Oh yeah. Have you gone, yet?”

“Gone?”

“To the dentist?”

“Kind of a strange place to start catching up,” Ambrose said.

“We’re friends right?” Lyle asked suddenly.

“Well, yes, we’re friends. Are you mad about something?”

“How close of friends are we?”

Ambrose was almost certain, now, that this was a joke he didn’t understand, but asked, “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. It’s just that I’ve got this amnesia thing going on.”

“You what?”

“Nothing. Just a joke. It’s been kind of a weird few days. You know what? Forget I called,” Lyle said and hung up.

As seniors, they took Advanced American Literature together with Mr. Badger, who did not at all live up to his name but was famously forgetful. Whenever someone didn’t turn a paper in, he wrote their name down on the board to remind them that they were losing points. Lyle’s name went up on the board every assignment, and every time Lyle would erase his name while Mr. Badger wasn’t looking. He got a passing grade in the class because he convinced Mr. Badger that he’d turned in every essay, but that Mr. Badger had lost them.

Lyle didn’t answer when Ambrose tried to call him back. A few phone calls to old friends confirmed what Ambrose suspected. Lyle was missing. “He called me, too,” Nina, a mutual friend said wearily. “This isn’t the first time this has happened, though. Last year, he disappeared for four days and they found him in a hotel under the name John Dee.”

“Shouldn’t we be doing something?”

“Talk to his family.”

Ambrose walked to the convenience store down the street to buy aspirin. It was almost New Year’s Eve and he didn’t have any plans. He didn’t even know where to look or who to ask to find an interesting party for the evening, which made him feel old.

Somewhere, not far from the store entrance, someone was celebrating early and playing Auld Lang Syne on a piano. Meditating on the words, Ambrose sang under his breath, “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind…”

“There looks like trouble,” someone said behind him. He turned and saw a man with dirty blond hair and beard wearing a green canvas, WWII trench coat and holding a leather briefcase walking toward him, one hand outstretched. “Ambrose, are you living out here now?”

Ambrose shook hands and smiled, certain that he’d never seen the man in his life.

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Resolutions

Unlike everyone else she knows, Kendal loves resolutions.

She spends 364 days of the year composing them in her head and then writes them down on New Year’s Day. As a rule, they were impossible, things she is certain will never happen. Like buying her dream house on the corner of Summit Avenue, the one that cost more to build than she and her husband would earn in their lifetimes. Or becoming an Olympic Gold Medalist in the high jump, though she’d never been an athlete and there wouldn’t be summer or winter Olympics that year. Or resolving to write an epic trilogy following the exploits of an animate marionette with cut strings searching for the Great Puppeteer in the Sky. “Achieve world peace” had made its appearance on several lists, as had “Win the lottery” and “Become a year younger.”

Despite what many people think, it isn’t an exercise in disappointment or humility. No one actually keeps their resolutions, and so Kendal figures that if she is going to make promises that she can’t keep, they should at least be fabulous and imaginative.

Really, Kendal is a pragmatist. She never makes actual promises to others she can’t fulfill. She serves on committees and boards, coaches sports teams, never takes sick days, and is always on time. She had her life mapped out from the age of 12 and things have gone almost exactly according to plan. New Year’s Resolutions are a sacred breach of character, and one that delighted her.

But in 2014, something odd happened. Her oldest son, then 18, said that instead of living in the dorms he wanted to have a tiny house. He made a compelling economic case to Kendal and her husband and so they decided to help build the small 250 square foot unit over the summer.  Word spread among his friends and the idea caught on, which resulted in a clutch of tiny houses set up as a commune not far from campus. It had taken negotiations with the university and the city, but eventually both came around to the idea that a little village could be a good and educational learning community.

It wasn’t until October that Kendal’s husband pointed out that she had accomplished a resolution. In her long list of fanciful priorities, she’d said, “Build a village.” She found the revelation strangely unsettling. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t part of her actual plan. Her resolutions were supposed to be pure abstractions, never to be fulfilled, purely speculative and unattainable. She resolved to be more careful making her list for 2015.

On Sunday, November 1, 2015, Kendal woke an hour before her alarm, seized by inspiration. She does not consider herself a writer, but she literally could not help but sit down at her computer and type furiously. It wasn’t a novel, essay, or play. Instead, it was a long series of rules, commandments, disjointed parables, epic and condensed narratives, and prophecies. She spent the next month unable to do anything else but write, during which time she lost her job and her family began to consider committing her.

Finally, the thing was done. She posted it as a note on Facebook and watched in horror as the comments and likes grew and a community began to form. There are now 2,170 members of a group claiming to belong to a new sect of which she is the prophet.

In 2014, Kendal had listened to a lot of Cake. It seemed harmless to plagiarize a lyric and add it to her resolutions: build a religion.

January 1st, 2016 is just around the corner. Kendal has resolved to have no resolutions this coming year, but the she can’t stop the ideas from forming. Gain two hundred pounds of muscle and two more limbs? Establish a successful anvil delivery service? Master 5D art? She is so used to dreaming up absurd promises that she can’t help herself.

She dreads the New Year. Because, now, everything is possible.

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End of Year Appeal

Dear Fiend,

Let’s get to the point, shall we? None of us have the time — especially if we get our way.

They say Evil doesn’t pay and they’re right. That’s why, if you make an end-of-year, tax deductible gift today, your donation will be tredecuple-matched and your name will be added to the Wall of Infamy in Perpetuity!

The year is coming to an end. And so is everything else, thanks to your resolve. We should take a moment to reflect on our accomplishments and Greatest Ambitions.

Despite the disappointing outcome of the 2012 Promise campaign, Antagonist United and its loyal members have worked hard to make these past three years a spectacular success.

Through creativity and malice, we’ve finally accomplished both the biological and supernatural zombie. Nano bots capable of bringing on the Grey Goo have gotten to work in Missouri. Our Bad Weathermen are producing tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons all across the world. General mania and disorder are rampant with no serious opposition from masked vigilantes. And (completely unrelated) a meteor is hurtling toward the planet, which looks like a promising extinction event.

Fiends, we are closing in on the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the Denouement.

That’s right. Antagonist United is proud to announce our dedication to ensuring that 2016 will be The End.

By this time next year, there will be no Time. There will be no Something. Just Nothing.

It’s not clear what that will look like or whether or not it will violate the laws of physics, but it will Be.

But only with your compulsory support.

At Antagonist United, we aren’t interested in generosity, just the End of all ends. Just like you. This world is a mess and we need to rule it. If you make a tax-deductible end of year gift today we’ll ensure that 2016 will be the last. This time, we promise.

One way or another.

That’s why, for a limited time only, if you donate your entire net worth to Antagonist United, you can have your loved ones back! By now, you must have noticed their absence. Let me assure you that they are safe (for now) and moderately comfortable and will remain so until the stroke of midnight January 1st, 2016. After that, well, it all depends on your loyalty to our cause.

Make your Last donation today. To a future none of us will ever know, just like everyone else.

Yours with Conviction,

SF

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Review: “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free,” by Cory Doctorow

The title is misleading. Cory Doctorow’s full observation is, “Information doesn’t want to be free. People want to be free.” Though the book is sold as a guide for creative types to make a living off their work in the digital age, Doctorow’s real purpose is political. That’s not meant as a criticism. It’s a rich book with a lot of useful insight into the rapidly changing way we create and consume media. But calling it a “how-to” book is selling it short.

The gist of it is that we are at a crossroads in history. We can either embrace the possibilities of new media or let powerful existing interests dictate them for us. The pessimistic view is that you’ll be at the mercy of Amazon and Apple, buying products and thinking you own them only to have them deleted from your hardware because you didn’t read the fine print. Or, worse, get fined or thrown in prison by bringing the wrath of Disney down on you.

On the other hand, Doctorow argues that creators could instead trust their audiences and fight for relaxed copyright laws. It’s kind of a utopian view, but not necessarily wrong. Now that instantaneous copying and dissemination is a fact of life, we are faced with the choice of creators (actually, the distributors) having absolute control over their work, which is technically impossible without destroying personal privacy, or just trusting people to be honest.

Doctorow isn’t saying everyone needs to be honest, just enough people. And this happens all the time without anyone realizing it.

Growing up I developed an enduring hatred of NPR’s membership drive season. My parents, since before I was born, have been dedicated listeners and the radios in their kitchen and car have always been set to NPR. I’ve inherited the addiction. About a year ago, I realized that I finally had a disposable income and could do things like financially support the news, art, and institutions I’d been freeloading on for 27 years. And it feels good. I don’t get anything extra out of most of my monthly donations, but it does give me gratification to know that I’m giving back to mainstays of my intellectual and personal life. And, as any development professional will tell you, arts and culture nonprofits can’t exist without contributing audiences.

Point being, this model already exists and it works. People want to support the content creators they like, preferably without going through five middlemen.

Anyway, I agree with all that Doctorow writes, to a point. He’s Cory Doctorow — of course if he publishes a book and puts it up for a free on the internet with a “donate” button he’ll earn bank. He is talented and has worked hard to develop an audience over the years and so his generous terms don’t really prove anything.

On the other hand, he is talented and has worked hard to develop an audience over the years. That really isn’t any different than the traditional way of becoming an artist, except that instead of going to a publisher or label, you go right to the audience instead.

So, I look at myself and wonder, “Could I follow his advice and become a successful, professional writer?” Maybe. But I write professionally already, churning out grants and copy for an organization I like, so I don’t feel compelled to make a lifestyle change. But I am optimistic and I think Doctorow has a good point. I do know artists who make a living (not a glamorous one, but neither is mine) off of their work because there are enough people out there who like their work enough to support them.

That was a review, I guess. Read it and come up with your own opinions.

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Republicans criticize “alarmist” report that 97% of astronomers agree asteroid will kill most life on Earth

A new report released by NASA has re-ignited the political debate over the Extinction-Event Asteroid.

While the study finds that 97% of actively publishing astronomers agree that the oncoming asteroid will kill the majority of plant and animal life on Earth, Republicans criticized it as “alarmist rhetoric” created by the liberal media. One of Congress’ most vocal Asteroid skeptics, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), took to the floor today holding a fist-sized rock, saying, “In case you have forgotten, these are all over the place,” before tossing it at the Chairman’s desk.

“Just look up, people!” says Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX). “Do you see a fiery ball of interstellar matter hurtling toward us? I didn’t think so.”

Asteroid activists across the country and world, however, have praised the new study. “If we don’t take action soon, we may miss our two-year deadline before Earth’s next extinction event,” said an exhausted and exasperated Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” his trademark bow-tie hanging limply from his neck. “Twenty years ago, we had options. Now… maybe Hollywood has some ideas.”

Astronomers say the Asteroid fits the hypothesized description of the asteroid that allegedly caused the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event during which three-quarters of the planet’s species went extinct. Numerous solutions to address the Asteroid problem have been presented, most notably using a gravity tractor, focused solar energy, a mass driver, and even launching a nuclear explosive device at the near-Earth object. Skeptics say all these proposals are “economically infeasible.”

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released a response shortly after NASA’s announcement, stating, “Asteroid activists would have Americans (and indeed all of earth’s citizens) catastrophically reorganize our world economy and way of life to appease science fiction conspiracy theorists. NASA itself acknowledges these plans will directly lead to increased taxes, job losses in the disaster recovery sector, and decreased household disposable income.”

All the declared and expected Republican presidential candidates quickly condemned the NASA report. “Meteors have hit the Earth before,” said Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). “Experts even say that we get hit by a meteorite five to ten times a year.”

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, the favored candidate of the Koch brothers, has gone even further, suggesting, “If there’s actually a giant asteroid hurtling toward earth, it may even be a good thing,” In a time of limited resources, population reduction will lead to greater prosperity for the survivors, Walker said.

After being contacted for this article, writer and activist Naomi Klein refused to answer interview questions, saying only, “I told all of you assholes. Do you really think this changes anything? We’re all fucked.”

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Prompt: Someone you used to know

A friend of mine recently contacted me to say that he was in acting school and I keep coming up in his subconscious. The context is that there’s an exercise the actors do in which you imagine talking to someone you know well and act it out.

As acting techniques go, that’s on the kinder end of the spectrum. Another friend of mine in college told me about when her teacher made her do a monologue given by Allison in Proof. The character is afraid she’s beginning to exhibit signs of schizophrenia and so my friend’s teacher made her go sit in the corner and scream “Please, God, don’t make me crazy!” For five minutes. I saw her a few hours after this and she was still chain smoking. And they say writers are masochists.

But, I can’t claim the moral high ground. When I directed plays, I used to make my actors shout their lines at each other. Besides the fact that it’s amusing as hell, it actually is very effective in getting people to memorize their parts.

Back to the first friend and his subconscious. The exercise he described sounds a lot like one of my favorite prompts, which I will now share with you.

Ideally, someone else is supposed to read this aloud. It’s almost a form of meditation or therapy, but this will have to do.

Imagine you are in a place you know very well. It’s a place you find comforting and meaningful. Maybe it’s your childhood bedroom, your college Animal House-style living room, a church sanctuary, your old office (assuming you liked that job), or your favorite bar.

You walk in, and you are alone. It’s quiet and peaceful. But, there’s a difference: the walls are covered in pictures. Photos of friends, family, people you associate with a the place you’re in, and people who never set foot there.

One picture, in particular, catches your attention. You walk over and study it. It’s of someone you know very well, but haven’t spoken to for a long time. Suddenly, that person walks through the door.

Write the conversation you have.

#

(Iowa City, the Ivy House. The living room is crammed with furniture buried under layers of junk, jackets, and books. It smells like pizza, dust, and wine. Autumn. The back door opens, closes, and someone walks through the mudroom, kitchen, and library and stands in front of me. It’s Siouxsie Sioux from the Banshees.)

SS: You know, we’ve never actually met. I don’t think this is really in the spirit of the exercise.

Me: (Aside to the audience in the style of Shakespeare or Frank Underwood) In the three years that my friends occupied the Ivy House, about twelve people lived there sporadically. They left all sorts of stuff behind, particularly the guy who occupied my room before I moved in. One thing that he left was this poster. At first it terrified me, but then Stockholm Syndrome kicked in. Three months later, when he came to collect his shit, I hid the poster and have had it with me ever since.

SS: I can hear you.

Me: The People need context.

SS: There’s really no context to explain why I’m here.

Me: Why don’t we talk anymore, Siouxsie?

SS: You graduated college. As imaginary friends go, I had some staying power.

Me: What does that say about my current state?

SS: I’m not going to speculate. So, what do you want to talk about?

Me: … Want to go to Uglies?

SS: Sure.

(Exit all. End scene.)

#

This is a great prompt to exercise writing dialogue. The idea is that if you write a conversation between yourself and someone you know well, the dialogue will sound more natural. That’s the trick to writing dialogue — you have to know your characters and their intentions well enough that they seem to you like old friends.

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Two Farmers

I started listening to Intelligence Squared debates recently and have enjoyed as much as I hate them. The level of civility (usually) and cogency of argument are refreshing compared to shows like Cross Fire or Politically Incorrect, but I dislike the way the motions are phrased, because they usually presuppose and give bias to one side or the other. For instance, I just listened to he Big Government Is Destroying the American Dream episode, the title of which assumes that we have a Big Government and that big government is Bad. Predictably, the side arguing for the motion won, but the part that really bothered me was Art Laffer’s comment:

“… [I]f something doesn’t work in a two person economy, it’s not good economics. Take two farmers, that’s the whole world. If one of those farmers gets unemployment benefits, guess who pays for it? The other farmer.”
What a ludicrous and brutal claim. How can the economics between two people have anything to do with financial policy? If that were true, we wouldn’t have two separate fields, micro and macro economics, that operate according to completely different rules and in completely different environments.

Nevertheless, for the sake of argument, I’ll roll with it.

So, let’s say our two farmers are named Mary Room and Cato Schroedinger. They’re the only two farmers after some horrific apocalypse.  According to Wikipedia, citing the Future of Humanity Institute, the most probable apocalyptic scenarios are (ignoring global warming) molecular nanotechnology weapons and artificial intelligence. We’re all familiar with the latter thanks to Terminator, so we’ll go with that route.

Mary and Cato are the last two farmers on earth, probably as a pet project of our new AI overlords. They are both master organic farmer-survivalists the likes of which are only seen in the Swiss Family Robinson. Everyone dies during the winter, which leaves them both ample time to assess and come to terms with their current situation:

MR: Everyone’s dead.

CS: I guess so.

MR: You checked online, right?

CS: Of course.

Having prepared for this moment their entire adult lives, they’re set. They’ve got one-acre farmhouses with cows, chickens, seeds, woods, and all the things one needs to run and independent farm. Because they are both of the same opinion about how the world’s going to end, their farms are adjacent.

Things are going well. Everyone’s dead, but they have a crop coming up, sufficient canned food, and the high morale that only comes with vindication. Being both pragmatists, they decide to re-start the human race and fuck as often as possible, which isn’t often because running a farm independently is really hard work.

But then, Cato’s cows and pigs die. His field is hit by a drought, which inexplicably affects him without hitting Mary (AI overlords). His well dries up, his farmstead burns down, and his chickens are eaten by wild boars.

So, Cato goes to Mary’s homestead and explains the situation:

CS: I’m going to die. Please help.

But, little did Cato realize that Mary was a student of the Chicago school of economics. She replies:

MR: How is that my problem?

After a protracted debate about the free market and entitlement programs, Cato goes back to his homestead and never returns. Mary assumes he died, but isn’t sure. She is sure, however, that if she had shared her food she would have just given a free lunch (breakfast and dinner) to a slacker who didn’t have the determination to survive in the post-apocalyptic reality of the world. The AI overlords reward her with a piece of cake, but in private comment:

A1: They really thought that was a good idea?

A2: Well, they are made of meat.

Meanwhile, the two writers left alive and thrown together in a cramped apartment somewhere else on the depopulated earth spend a few days grumbling about how they don’t have the writing tools they prefer, drink, scribble, make awkward sexual advances, and then die of dehydration.

We won’t discuss the two remaining CEOs. It’s too gruesome.

 

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Anxiety #1: Writer’s Block

With every sentence there’s that lingering fear that it will be your last.

Is creativity finite? Is there only so much we can use before it’s gone? Or is it a muscle that strains?

What does it mean when you can’t write?

Of course you can write. Pick up the pen. Start typing. Dictate. Commit it to something like a permanent medium.

Then hate it. Tear it up. Rearrange or edit or destroy it. Rarely love it.

There’s no such thing as writer’s block, just the fear of writing shit. And there is so much of it. Not just in the rough drafts and notebooks lining up your bookshelf and cluttering up your hard drive, but in the libraries and bookstores, too. People like it, you think. There’s hope.

But I’m not going to write crap. I’m going to be remembered as a genius. The Sage of Minneapolis. At least I’ll be remembered for not being a hack.

But what’s wrong with being a hack? A good hack probably eats better than a good Serious Writer. There’s always a chance that someone later will read your piles of shit and interpret it as a gold. It happened to Raymond Chandler. Or at least the cultural studies department will create merit.

Again, what’s wrong with being a hack? People want to consume what makes them happy. Willy Wonka seemed okay with what he did, and his products caused diabetes, whereas what you do can, at worst, cost someone a few hours. John Carpenter, Patricia Highsmith, Barbara Kingsolver, Ernest Hemingway. Sure, I could become them, pandering to my audience. Give them what they want and make a living.

Instead, you write an essay with a confused narrator, sliding between first and second person. Is this even an essay?

It’s something. And it’s a couple hundred words of something. Writer’s block = overcome.

Why does this bother you so much?

Because writing is now part of your identity, and it would be stupid not to treat it as something sacred, or a useful body part. Take care of your kidneys.

Someone once told me that when you’re doing a comedy routine you have to treat your audience with contempt. You have to not care if they laugh or not. Transferring the lesson, you have to not care if your readers like your work as long as they read it. Just like Hemingway.

But you really should be writing. Something else. Because this isn’t enough. There’s a notebook filled with story prompts and half filled ideas and you have another notebook with two aborted rough drafts. This isn’t an essay – it’s an excuse not to write something you care about more. But it’s kind of fun.

This is an ending of sorts.

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Filed under Anxieties, Writing

Where Ideas Come From

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me where I get my story ideas. I was thrilled because it seems like this question is some sort of rite of passage. In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about how fans ask him (and every other author he knows) all the time. His answer is basically that good ideas just come to you sometimes and you have to remain open to and aware of those sudden flashes of insight. Comic artist Warren Ellis said something to the effect that he fills his mind with a lot of junk and stories sometimes emerge, sort of in a primordial soup kind of way.

My favorite, and the one that resonates most with me, is the observation, I think it was Neil Gaiman, that, “The difference between a writer and other people is that when a normal person brakes their arm they shout, ‘Take me to the hospital,’ but when a writer breaks her arm, she shouts, ‘Get me a pen!'”

Everyone has great story ideas all the time, whether real of fiction, it’s just a matter of writing them down. I’m not saying every time you have a flash of insight you immediately sit down and write out a story, but most of the time you just have to give your intuition the benefit of the doubt.

My story, “Where You End and the World Begins,” has a frankly bizarre genesis, and it didn’t come to me all at once.  It started with a friend of mine mentioning that his mother used to belong to some cult-like church that kept trying to compel the family to come back. One day, when the acquaintance was a little kid, some of these church members apparently came to the house while his mother was in the shower and tried to lure him into a car. His mother’s parent-sense tingled and she ran out of the house naked, grabbed him, and yelled at the parishioners to leave her family alone.

Somehow, that’s where the zealot in the story came from.

The second component, the main character who has a preternatural talent for finding things, was a little more personal and ongoing. I lose things a lot. I’m forgetful and I have a bad habit of setting things down in places the don’t belong. I’ve long wanted to be able to hire a contractor whose job it is to find all the things I’ve misplaced.

That’s it. Two weird bits of information that became a story.

So, if you’ve ever wondered where ideas come from, you already know. It’s just a matter of paying attention and writing them down when you can.

And if you’re doing Nano, get back to it.

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Filed under Things That Happen, Uncategorized, Writing