Spoiler alert: there is no such thing as a spoiler.

I broke a writer’s cardinal rule: I talked about a work in progress.

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My friend Carol asked what I’ll work on, now that my first book is published. Immediately She realized her mistake. “Stop! Nevermind!” she said, waving her hands. “Forget I asked. I know writers aren’t supposed to discuss works in progress.”

But I’ve never liked this about writers. Writers are notorious for being supremely guarded about their work.

Plain as day, nobody cared much for the work.

This was a phenomena I first observed in college, where it was our job to talk about current works. Students who were prodded to discuss their piece would simply demure, citing some seal of freshness, some finite magic in their story, and talking about it, or even offering a description before it was completely complete (and a story was never completely complete) was akin to removing the cap from a bottle of beer. The tale’s effervescence was released—out there—not just to our classroom, it was lost to a literary ether where some unknowable community of thieves and plagiarists were waiting to slurp up orphaned stories.

Where this would leave the foolish authors who let their story slip was unclear. They’d still have their story, but most certainly it would be reduced to a shell, robbed of its spirit, the leavings of which resembled little more than a mismatched pile of cliches and soggy, overly-obvious daddy issues.

At first I thought this was just a clever excuse for neglected or procrastinated homework. While that may be true, I couldn’t help noticing a trend that indicated otherwise, as loose lips were repeatedly blamed for lousy stories and lousy writing.

It was a rationale that was hard to watch—the delusional acrobatics writers happily preferred in order to sidestep an honest consideration of what led to their story’s demise. This, I thought, was a pity, since an autopsy usually revealed their story had been done-in by something much easier to define, something much more workable than the nebulous treachery of black magic. That is—a lack of elbow grease.

Plain as day, nobody cared much for the work.

And that’s fair. I get that. I don’t think anyone would be particularly surprised to discover we are creatures beset by laziness. So many stories suffer from a spectrum of laziness, whether that’s a mere lack of work ethic, or the larger, far more ominous blockade—the inability to retool an ego impervious to editorial advice.

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It is much more fun (and easier) to imagine we’re hot stuff and the world is just dying to read our stories. There’s a queue of publishers wringing their hands as this or that staggering work of genius edges its way closer to publication.

So, what happens when the world doesn’t come clamoring for a finished work? The tendency, at least in college, was to double-down on the fantasy and contribute a story’s failure, again, to anything besides laziness. Usually it was the audience that was too dumb to grasp a story or an author’s greatness. You think I’m lying, but I’ve actually heard writers say, with a straight face, their writing was ‘ahead of their time.’

What then, explains for the profound fatigue of writers?

My best guess is, though it seems silly, writers were promised romance. We were tricked into thinking writing meant breathless, unapologetic nights and wild days unencumbered by steril, soul-crushing jobs. Simply calling yourself a writer granted your elite membership to some mantle of greatness. These are all obvious untruths. Except writers, it would seem, have a disproportionately difficult time reaching that conclusion: writing is actually boring, unsexy and humiliating work.

I happily told my friend what I’m working on. I told her I’m working on a story I hate. I told her it is fitting it was written during the presidency of Donald Trump, since it is a story that applauds nihilism. Its humor is overly dark, to the point of not being funny any more. It’s characters, while complex and beautiful are beset by immaturities and cruelties that are seemingly insurmountable. Somewhere in there, an entire community collectively loses it’s mind and persecutes a handful of innocents in a futile attempt to bury an unburyable list of atrocities in which everyone (this being a small town) is somehow implicated.

Nothing is killed by ruminating a story’s elements
that didn’t already need a good killing in the first place.

I spoke at length about my horrible story. I admitted to my fear it may not age very well since I believe writing that aims to capture the zeitgeist, (especially during a nationwide lapse in dignity and brotherhood) while compelling and beautiful, is also fleeting and temporary. Once the ugly political storm breaks, the text will read much differently, overly sour and mysteriously dreary.

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The only people who purport writing is a mystical process are other writers who want to narrow the field.

We had a good discussion about my story and, hey-presto, what do you know? The story is still there! It’s still just as huge and looming in all its grotesque horribleness as it was before I let it out of the bag. This, I believe, goes to show—nothing is killed by ruminating a story’s elements that didn’t already need a good killing in the first place. I’ll say that again, for emphasis—it should be a rule: if your story can’t cop to an objective back-and-forth then it was probably a lousy story. Good riddance, and no love lost.

It seems silly to suggest a story can be robbed of its interestingness. It would indicate there’s some kind of voodoo inhabiting the arc. Isn’t that asking a lot of a story? That it should just be magical, rather than be made magical?

There is nothing magical about writing.

The only people who purport writing is a mystical process are other writers who, either by an inferiority complex or competitiveness, aim to narrow the field and elevate their craft beyond the reaches of practical and proletariat work. They want you to believe writing is a God-given something regular people can only dream of, if only we were talented enough, or smart enough, or artful enough.

So if you have a story to tell, and you’re lucky enough for someone willing to sit through the rough, early version, then you’d better goddamn pipe up. And quick. And be prepared for the chance your special someone might not be so impressed. They might even straight-up dislike your story. And I get that. I understand why that would seem an unsavory, possibly masochistic endeavor. Humiliation is a very potent deterrent. But, get over yourself. Writing isn’t about being strong, it’s about being vulnerable.

What changed, after I discussed my my story with Carol? Not much, the story is mostly the same. But she did me a huge favor in pointing out an obvious pitfall—she reminded me to keep an eye on how easily the story could slip into a work of commentary—to beware the story is still a story. If it is to be timeless, it will need to work harder than to lean on the zeitgeist to explain away the motives and actions of it’s comically cruel inhabitants. The zeitgeist, she explained, is a common crutch. And once the crutch is kicked away…

So that’s a bit of good news, my story didn’t fall apart in discussion. The opposite, in fact, since objective (not to mention, free) suggestions are an invaluable resource. Had I chastised her for prying I might’ve missed that opportunity, or at least I would have wasted a great deal of time coming to the conclusion on my own.

So there’s that word again: work.

I suppose it’s time to return to the beginning, the first chapter, and work harder.

The delicacies of writing non-fiction: what to leave in or omit and why unfairness is the greatest hurdle to telling a your story.

Originally published by the good grace of HC Newton on The Irresponsible Reader

Luck Favors The Prepared is a collection of nonfiction short stories. That ‘nonfiction’ part has been a tricky business. Nonfiction is rarely flattering. Seldom does its characters move about as gracefully or as tactfully as we believe we move about our own lives. Most people long for privacy—while the goal of nonfiction (as is the goal of any writing) is the opposite of privacy, to reach an audience. Additionally, the claim (and the sting) of nonfiction is that these are stories which have actually happened, concerning people who actually existed—people with feelings and, possibly, access to legal counsel.

What if I get it wrong? What if I muddy up the dates or fail to nail the dialogue verbatim? These, while valid points, were the least of my concerns. The ultimate hang-up was whether a person would be not flattered by the character I’d made of them.

The conclusion I always reached (which was no) held up the writing of these stories for many years, until, at long last, I was able to call a truce with my inhibitions and get to work.

What explains the shift?

For starters, these are good stories so they were not easily dismissed. Given time and pressure, eventually their persistence forced me to reconcile this seeming insurmountable hurdle to nonfiction: the spectre of fairness.

Readers of Luck Favors The Prepared will notice I traffic in some incredibly unsavory characters. Was it fair of me to write them so? Probably not. People, however, have had more than enough time to get along without fairness. Indeed, we’ve lived in a dearth of fairness since time immemorial. It is audacious of my characters to demand that fairness would make a historically rare visit just to save their hide.

The best we can do is be proactive, and behave ourselves. If you’re good, most assuredly, nobody will write about you.

We’ve developed many ways to live well, even in this absence of fairness. Chances are you’ve  had a brush with Christianity, the founding tenets of which warn we should (to paraphrase a number more eloquent passages) watch our ass. If you feel exempt from the offerings of Christianity, the scientific community has an equally potent formula coined by Newton’s third law: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. There are some still who feel left behind by both Christianity and science, for them I can only hope they have a magnanimous sense of humor. After that, you’re S.O.L.

The idea is, in a world where what goes around, comes around—fairness is a red herring.

It took me longer than it should have to come to this conclusion. When I did, it was like a fresh breath of air. Which is why I am now gleefully submitting Luck Favors The Prepared for publication, just under the wire, during this lapse in the Universal Calendar when fairness seems to have checked-out.

If nothing is fair, what then, will keep the world from coming apart?

In this supreme absence of fairness, Christianity, science or humor implores us to act with kindness, beauty and grace. It is, you could say, a last-ditch stopgap to prevent everything from going to pot. This is an idea I can get behind in a major way. It has allowed me to finally locate my voice—and write nonfiction to my heart’s content. To do so compassionately, in spite of appearances to the contrary.

In the spirit of kindness it is important to note: while I have not shied away from capturing a character at their very worst, that unfortunate snapshot is strictly happenstance. I am not aiming, specifically, to capture a character at their worst. Though, to be fair, I am not straining to capture a character at their finest either. I am not aiming to catch a character behaving any which way, except for that which best captures the story. Kindness should be, above all else, a commitment to the story.

While many of my characters found themselves illuminated in such a harsh light, kindness suggests that (hopefully) they were just going through a rough spot. Their only real crime (in the universal sense) was they experienced a fevered lapse of judgement in the company of someone with such an impeccable memory.

Kindness forces us to consider the angels of our better nature, that people are great, complex creatures. We are brimming with contradictions. Sometimes we are terrible and evil. Other times, we are beautiful and reaffirm all of the wonderful things.

How does one know when they’re writing from a place of kindness? Crap stories are usually unkind. We’ve all heard an embittered divorcee seethe about their poisonous ex-wife or husband. It’s nothing you would treat yourself to after a day’s work. That’s what red wine is for.

Nonfiction without kindness reads flat and vindictive. Any too-thin story is so obviously a sad revenge-vehicle to facilitate a tantrum. It is painfully uninteresting. Yes, sometimes unkind nonfiction is fun to read. But it’s a dirty, bitter pill and should be enjoyed sparingly.

Are the stories objective?

Just because I am the narrator, doesn’t mean I am exempt from the critique of these narratives. To lean faithfully on the story’s foundation means I should just as freely throw myself on the same pyre to which I’ve thrown these poor characters. Could I have been more critical of myself, the character? Maybe, but that’s above my paygrade.

Writing nonfiction is to shoulder into unfairness. So the very least a nonfiction author can do is make well and sure they’re writing from a place of kindness and objectivity. Or, at least, try real hard to do so. This is why I still write with boundaries. Very strict boundaries in fact. There’s much more I could write, but it’s a waste of time if there’s no redeeming story.

I am forty years old now. Does an inability to understand and reconcile the dueling perspectives of fairness and kindness explain why it’s taken me so long to offer Luck Favors The Prepared? Probably not. But lay off, I’m short on time. I suppose I could try harder, to completely throw myself at producing books, which is a lot like working a second job without pay. Try explaining that to a wife and a daughter.

The Centerpiece

It is Italy, the Amalfi coast, a cafe that proudly serves wine with an ornate fasces on the label. He is a regular here in spite of knowing full well what the fasces represents.
    It is late afternoon. He recreates a tableau at his table in the deep, shady corner of the cafe: a carafe of rotgut burgundy and a glass, a smashed pack of filterless Camels. The cigarettes are positioned just-so, stacked by a companion Zippo as brittle and antique as his typewriter, the centerpiece to this composition: a fifteen pound Underwood with a broken ‘t’ and a broken ‘!.’
    For the absent t’s and !’s, he types the letter ‘x’ in their stead. Like a placeholder.
    In spite of its crippled keys and the myriad, marvelous technological tinkers writing implements have undergone since 1941, (the birthdate of that shit-piece relic) he begins humping away at the jalopy, just as he’s done for the past year or so.
    The thumping and grinding required to commune with the crippled device shakes his rickety table like a platter of jello. It’s why so many pages of his manuscript are wine-blotched and cigarette-burnt—accoutrements, he believes, lend the stale, rumpled stack of unreadable paper a certain authenticity.

The cafe's house wine label, specifically the fasces displayed therein (a small, crude axe symbolizing fascism—a surprisingly common holdover from World War Two in the Italian countryside), is his most frequent conversation starter.
    It is an unsolicited starter which always begins, “You know what that little axe symbolizes, don’t you?” As an opener it is an obvious and creepy maneuver he inflicts on the particularly vulnerable stream of hostel-weary Americans lonely enough to mistakenly entertain what follows. What follows is, of course, a suffocating and suspiciously practiced monologue concerning the innocuous little fasces and the heft it bears with these redneck Italians, which he pronounces, “eye-tayl-yuns.”
If his conspicuously predatory monologue is not effectively interrupted (no small task) it will inevitably wind its way through a selection of similarly rehearsed morsels of pseudo intellectual jetsam.
    In spite of this boorish buffoonery, which would render him a pariah back home in America, he is strangely tolerated by the waitstaff and suffered by the other regulars.
    Maybe they’ve grown fond of him?
    He is, if anything, immensely entertaining to watch—from a distance. Like a pathetic mascot haunting the dreary cafe corner—click-clacking at the galloping typewriter, interrupted frequently by spilled wine, or to put out a small fire, ignited by an errant cigarette.

Outside the cafe, from the last, sultry throes of an indian-summer’s dusk, comes a woman. She is a tall silhouette, definitely American. The typewriter stops. Everyone watches her hungrily as she wanders into the cafe from the cobblestone courtyard.
    She steps up to the bar, says something to the bartender. The bartender answers by kissing the fingertips of his hand and hurries for a bottle. She tries to pay, but the bartender will have none of it. Instead he ushers her to a seat next to the courtyard: advertising.
    She demures and, with the bottle and two glasses, leaves the evening light and the rowdy bocce volo to the seniors on the patio. She explores further into the musky armpit of the back cafe to a table across from a man, also American, profoundly sweaty and perching like an obese parakeet at his typewriter, the keys of which, ASDF–JKL and the little colon are all punched into a traffic jam at the lead.
    He untangles the jam of keys. Strains, squinting at the back-lit page. Impossible to read. Resumes typing furiously: ‘I can’t xhink of whax xo wrixe so insexead Iwill wrixe ax xhe xypewrixer unxil she xalks xo me. GOOD GODX Why doesn’t she xalk xo meXXX
    She is looking at the spilled wine on the floor.
    He can’t bring himself to look at her. He doesn’t need to. It keeps going around his head—two glasses. TWO!
    “Whatcha workin’ on?”
    He stops typing, adjusts his glasses. “I’m sorry?”
    “You’re a writer. So, whattre you writing?”
    He looks back to the page, feigning irritation at her distraction. He fake-reads a couple sentences and returns to her, waiting.
    “What?” she shrugs. “Don’t want to spoil the magic?”
    “I’m on a seance!” he answers.
    “A what?"
    “A seance! You do know what—”
    “I know what a seance is. It’s just—”
    There is a long obvious pause. She is slipping away.
    “That bottle,” he says, turning in his seat to square at her. “The label. You do know what that little axe stands for, don’t you?”
    It is night when her husband finally joins them. He finds his wife in the back of the cafe. She is standing. She is pissed. She is shaking her hand and tells her husband she might have broken it on that asshole’s face. They hurry out of the cafe.
    He is laid out, over his table, which has collapsed in a flurry of papers and wine and cigarette ash. Several important looking bits of hardware have escaped from the Underwood, he picks up one of the keys from the ground and strains past his throbbing, crunchy nose to make it out.
    ‘!’
    “So,” he chuckles, wincing at his nose. “We meet again?”
    There is so much blood. All he did was try to flirt a little, how could he have known she was married? That’s the problem with women today. No, it’s always been the problem with women: they don’t know how to take a compliment. They can’t just let a man make them feel pretty or special.
    He pulls together the wreckage of his table. The spilled wine and the papers. He gathers the Underwood’s scatter of dislodged hardware. He decides to remember her, commit her to memory so he can write her into a book later. Pensione Vengeance. That will be the title, though it hasn’t been written yet.

It is later. Nursing his broken nose, he pours over the pages of his manuscript that looks like it was wrestled from the mouth of an alcoholic crocodile. He’s crying a little, but not from the pain, which was substantial, but for the possible disfiguring features his smashed nose could very well assume.
    That woman, tiny fists, almost knocked his head right off his shoulders!
    And for what? All he did was put his hand on her leg.
    He gives up trying to edit the tangle of papers, impossible with a freshly broken nose. It’s a good thing he doesn’t believe in editing. Editing, as he states often and loudly, is the quickest, most sure-fire way to kill the spirit in your writing. It has always been a point of pride his reviews accomplish little retooling beyond adding the missing t’s and exclamation points, or to clarify text bled by spilled wine or torched by a cigarette.
    This was an extra effort he was happy to perform as long as the typewriter was the pièce de résistance to his meticulously constructed portrait. But what now? The evening’s scuffle had most certainly been the kiss of death for the horrid Underwood.
    He lays back in bed. A chorus of squeaks from the springs in the awful mattress in his awful hotel room, which he chose specifically because it was awful. He closes his eyes to the incredible, throbbing mash of nose. The bleeding is finally letting up.
    He decides, every true writer should have his nose broken at least once.
    Realizing this helps him embrace the injury. As far as a badge of honor, it’s no broken Underwood, but people will still look upon it with admiration and disgust.
    It has to be a good story though. Impressive.
    He recreates the event in his head, replacing the furious tourist with tiny fists to a gigantic, drunken brute. Russian probably? No, Russian is too obvious. Polish perhaps? Yes. A Pollack, groping women at the bar. Finally, he’s forced to inserted himself between the Pollack and some girl. The Pollack curses him, breath reeking of rancid sardines and Ouzo—a last, whimsical detail just before lights out. Bystanders will report what they saw: this man, huge and violent, simply put his massive fist, solid as the end of a log, through the American’s face.
    He’d have to leave town to tell a story like that, since everyone in this small town was there and saw what really happened.
    Maybe it was finally time to return to America? To return home.
    But then, what is America? What is home?

 

Not all that glitters...

Apparently, my college nemesis, Lawrencius, received news of my book, Luck Favors the Prepared. He sent me a letter.

The envelope was brown and coarse, probably a handmade paper with what looked like pine needles and feces pressed into the pulp. It was bound with a wax stamp displaying a frilly “L” and reeked of patchouli and college.

I opened the letter, in spite of the small bulge in the corner. The small bulge turned out to be glitter which exploded everywhere, covering everything. Myself, my living room, everything was instantly fabulous and would remain fabulous for weeks.

“Haha!” the letter read. “How do you like the glitter? Jerk!”

When you receive a letter with a wax seal:
1) call police
2) run
3) file police report about highly suspicious letter from possible college nemesis while running away from letter

His name wasn’t really Lawrencius (pron. lah-ren-suss). It was Seth, or David or Steve, but when we were classmates he demanded we refer to him by this pompous, made-up name. He signed all his papers, copies distributed for peer critique, with a similarly frilly ‘L.’

Lawrencius and I were instantly not friends.

Because we attended several of the same classes with an almost identical pool of students (common for a group who are all orbiting the same major), our mutual distaste bloomed as a spectacle for our small community.

Each writing assignment he submitted for review and class discussion, in addition to his ornate colophon, was introduced with the brassy fanfare of an indulgent preamble. He would actually stand at the front of the class to bloviate elaborately on his state of mind from whence his opus was composed. He would omit no context of where it was written, if its first traces were scrawled, post coital, on a bedside tablet or in a cafe filled with hot jazz and cold-eyed women. To my horror, these breathless prefaces were allowed to continue uninterrupted by our professors.

It is worth noting Lawrencius was a tremendous ass-kisser. His fawning attentions to our bevy of professors—whose egos purred at his persistent adoration—allowed that they were more than happy to yield their podium to his florid orations.

An actual quote from a particularly lengthy preface: “I was reeling in an ethereal plane of post-beat slam and pre-feminist utopian essays when I began to mold this piece…”

He went on and on like that (prompted by a small clutch of note cards) until, at long last, I’d had my fill.


“Why don’t you shut up?” I said.

Lawrencius, holding a grapefruit as a placeholder for poor Yorick’s skull, did just that. The grapefruit was a prop in his theatrical introduction to a sonnet, his most recent masterpiece, distributed for critique. It was only a brief pause but it was delicious. The silence, not the grapefruit.

“What did you say?”

“I said,” I said. “Shut up! You pompous blowhard.”

My point, which I thought was perfectly obvious and redundant to clarify, was that authors aren’t allowed a preface. They may include a preface to a written work, but for the author’s place in a world that’s short on time and likely doesn’t care about them, there are no such allowances. Just because we were a captive audience did not grant Lawrencius license to perform his never ending ballet of vanities.

It was a point that was not well received.

One of my classmates offered, “Why don’t you shut up?!”

“Yeah,” offered another. “You...pompous blowhard.”

I’d presumed as much, knowing Lawrencius was largely regarded a sort of defacto braintrust for our incestious little English department. Maybe he was a bouffant jackass but for all his wild claims to genius, his windy braggadocio, came a self-fulfilling foundation to which my classmates eagerly clung.

Lawrencius, emboldened by the chorus of supporters, again hefted poor Yorick the grapefruit to resume his monologue.

What did I learn from this—my sobering confrontation with Lawrencius? Humility? Worthlessness? All of that, yes, and much more.

It was a bitter pill.

I was impressed then, as I am now, how the earnest work of dedication and vulnerability is so easily trounced by the grand claims of an inferiority complex run amok.

For the skeptics out there, those who would turn their nose up at such a bitter pill, need only remember we are in the midst of Donald Trump’s presidency. And Donald Trump is arguably killing it among great swaths of our very own countrymen. These are grown men and women who feel a champion in Donald Trump. I’ll say that again, out of context, because it’s worth repeating.

Donald Trump!


In this grim landscape I’ve described, where is one to find purchase in the drilling headwinds of embarrassments and defeats and humility and on and on and on? How does one secure agency? The wherewithal to continue?

Search me.

I love weddings. One thing I love about weddings, (besides the whole wedding part), is that dance floor. Of course, much depends on the DJ, but likely, by the end of the night, I’ll be pouring sweat and my feet, which are not used to dress shoes, much less being forced to an evening of prolonged, violent exercise in dress shoes, will have rendered to throbbing bags of hamburger.

Whoever it was made the grave error of inviting me to their wedding, they and their whole family and their extended family and some coworkers and college buddies will look on breathlessly, “My god!” I can hear them gasp. “Is that poor white boy suffering a seizure?”

Here’s my secret:
    1. Give in to the likelihood that everything you do is stupid, ridiculous, temporary and probably offensive. Embrace everything opposite of dignity. Give in to the rhythm. You can feel that beat in your ass. Don’t deny it.
    2. Take a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook, “You’ll never be the punchline if you always, completely embrace the joke.” Okay, Donald Trump didn’t say that verbatim, but you know it has to be a Donald mantra. Otherwise he would have blown his brains out long ago.


Lawrencius’s glittery letter continued:
‘I heard about your so called ‘book.’ I heard you’re self publishing? I hear you’re having to do all your own marketing which is just as well since, if you can’t be a real author, then you might as well peddle trinkets. That’s so pathetic. In a sad way. Like a desperate cry for attention...’ His letter goes on and on like this. It’s pithy barbs lodged in my brain.

You can hear them in there still, rattling around in my head.

A Google search for Lawrencius and his many works pulled up scant results. There’s a lot of entries in vanity presses, whose contributors all paid someone $50 to consider and edit their submission in return for a free copy of the publication (distributed only to those who foolishly paid $50 for a shoddy lit rag).

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Google was also kind enough, to reveal Lawrencius’s address, which I followed to an apartment complex way out in the suburbs. I waited there for him, for a long time, and when he finally came out, I knew it was him since he still wore the same fedora with that stupid feather lodged in the brim.

He beeped the alarm to a small car parked just behind me. He got in and rolled down the window. I walked up to the car and said “Hey Steve!” and emptied a three pound bag of glitter into the open window. In his panic, cursing and flailing arms, my fabulous deposit was thoroughly distributed throughout the interior of the car, permanently embedding itself in the upholstery. Coughing and blinded, he sped off, windows billowing sparkling clouds like glittering streamers.

Where was he headed? I can’t say.

But I do know, when he gets there, he will show up looking absolutely fabulous.