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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Friends and Players and Happy Endings

Finally, autumn has arrived.

The season has a built-in nostalgia that poets have honed for millennia, what with its golden coolness into the darkness of winter. The presence of the Pope clamors for kindness, but I am still writing stories on the aftermath of infidelity.

It’s not impossible to be kind, but it can be hard. Infidelity is not as black and white as one would want it to be every single time. The problem, as it is with any system, is that humans can foul it easily.

The latest story that I am tackling is about how an infidelity affects a friendship. The setting is based on an innocent moment I witnessed once. In essence, I am rewriting history, and it is a strange process when you reverse things and take something chaste and infuse it with sex and sin.

The story is not done yet, but it seems clear that it is easier to muck up something pure than it is to purify something that was putrid to start. Being omnipotent over the lives of characters and their outcomes isn't as fulfilling when you destroy good things, though, and I wish I'd have a magical drink to erase the memory of my actions as I create these scenarios!

As with the rest of the stories, the goal is to try to capture the emotional aftermath of cheating. The challenge is not to end up with a dozen stories that resemble Victorian morality plays.

The research can be illuminating and depressing at once – especially when friends and family offer their own versions and anecdotes (or worse yet, when you recognize a player after you'd lived with the ideal that they were better than that: ugh!).

The latest story was meant to be about friends, but it seems more interesting to explore two kinds of friendship, if the format allows for it – it may end up being two separate stories. One a friendship betrayed by turning it into something it could never be, and then a friendship betrayed by destroying the nature of what it could have been… Different meanings for what seemed like simple words in complicated situations.

The problem is that some of these stories, they cannot end well. It’s not morality that determines how it ends; it’s the odds and the fact that sometimes the best of intentions are not enough.

Sometimes hearts get broken, the heartless get the upper hand, and happiness is not within reach. Sometimes revenge is not as satisfying as the fantasy of it. Sometimes, though, setting a liar’s trailer on fire . . . oh, it fills one with a natural high that is worth a possible arrest.

It’s all about the journey… and the ability to get all these stories together in one collection before the holidays. (Fingers crossed!)

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Clean Stove for Better Writing

We tend to cook every night at the Temple, though this summer we have also heavily relied on salads and cooking has not been necessary (especially on particularly hot and humid evenings when the temperatures reach three-digits in our kitchen).

Once a week I give the stove a thorough scrubbing. It doesn’t need it every single week, as some weeks all we do is heat up stuff and we wipe any spills immediately.

Still, every week, I take the grills off and open up the little stovetop, and scrub it inside and out until it sparkles.

It keeps the stove in good working condition and it is simply good kitchen hygiene. That’s the simple answer.

Why do it when it doesn’t need it? Because it reinforces discipline. When you freelance and you call your own schedule – whether by choice, necessity or lack of work – you still must pin tasks to your daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual routines. It brings constancy to life (and often makes life easier by its substance).

Tasks that require little intellect and a certain level of repetitive action allow you to go into automatic pilot and clear your head for a few minutes (it’s the real poor man’s meditation).This is not to say that the action is mindless, because it isn’t, you are focused on the task and any thoughts are reserved to the act itself.

During these reveries, sometimes characters talk to themselves or to each other, or I resolve problematic scenes. Challenges pop into my head that will define the strength of a character. Story lines stream like little movies in my head…

Sometimes I get lost in the Johnson Bros. Castles of England serving platter on the wall and my brain goes into a Julian Fellowes’ festival.

I don’t seek my cleaning sessions as ways to write while not writing. I clean and sometimes clearing my head results in great ideas coming to me, of new ideas emerging, of old ideas evolving.

Sometimes all you get through cleaning is momentary purging of worries or fears or sadness – whatever you have been carrying that week that has saddled you with emotional baggage nobody needs.

I’m not telling you that cleaning stuff will bring you catharsis or closure. I am suggesting that you find something that gives you a reasonable facsimile for coping, venting, best practice living, and better operating specs. Find your own automaton-inducing task.

Remember: not every scullery maid's story is a disaster!
Clean up your inbox, wash your car, find something that will keep you occupied for at least half an hour. Find the time. Even if you don’t want to—especially if you do not want to!

Why bother? Because you need to remind yourself, body/mind/soul, that the more things change some things remain; you can melt away worries and fear; and, even if you experience a slowdown of creativity, ideas can pop out of the simple act of scrubbing a stove. Hope is never lost, because it is all within; it may just require a little effort and discipline.

If nothing else, you’ll have a spectacularly shiny stove! 

Full disclosure: this week's stove scrubbing made me realize a character needed to confront the memory of a parent in a way that shook her strength for a moment. At the end of the story, she is stronger for it and finds it easier to move on with her life on her own terms.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Writing About Emotional Confrontations

I just finished writing a short story about a woman who is running herself ragged. Her father is in the hospital, dying, and this has brought up memories of her long-suffering mother and her father’s infidelities (some of which she witnessed).

What unravels in our story is a pattern of behavior and an awakening.

The question is whether I can hit all the right emotions. At what point do you hold back before you waltz into the turf of melodrama?

You want the story to be clear, to depict what the characters are going through by their words and actions, without having to necessarily explain their specific emotion in the moment.

You want to be clear but never obvious, understand? You want to leave the reader with some details that makes her wonder, that leaves her perhaps wanting more but also trying to fill in the blanks in her own mind. You want to evoke rather than dictate, and let her (the reader) interpret the story in a way that is meaningful to her.

Reading, to me, is not all passive. I believe that the moment you imagine yourself in the story, in the setting, as a character or a voyeur of it, you are interacting intellectually and emotionally. And if you get to that point, the cleverer of your readers will also imagine details you left unsaid or forgot altogether. They become co-writers and co-conspirators.

I spell-checked and reread it. Then I added a few lines. Then I deleted a bunch of words. I added a scene. Now it is time to shelve it. It will be proofed in a few weeks, unless I can enlist a volunteer to read it and critique it for me.

The plan is to have enough stories to release The Bloody Trail of Disenchantment as a stocking stuffer for the holidays.